It’s Time to Redefine the Dictionary

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Dictionaries are not an uncommon sight in Townsend Harris classrooms. In many classes, particularly English and Social Studies, students are required to bring a dictionary to class every day. Given the frequent usage of dictionaries in our academic lives, it would only be natural to assume that they are a reliable source of lexical information. This year, Oxford English Dictionaries chose its distinguished Word of the Year to be not a word using the English alphabet, but rather “ ”, known alphabetically as the “face with tears of joy emoji.” This decision has brought about several criticisms on modern language, questioning which words belong in such an esteemed dictionary, and which words are merely fads that should not be acknowledged by an institution like Oxford University. However, it is important to consider all popular vocabulary for use in dictionaries, as language should reflect the demand of communication, and repelling these new ideas limits the potential of the English language to convey unprecedented ideas and feelings.

Humans use language to communicate ideas and feelings in a structured and conventional way. Different words are used in different contexts depending on who is being spoken to and for what reasons. This warrants many different ways of expressing similar ideas, usually through synonymous words or emphases. These words are chosen particularly to meet the needs of society, and are not just arbitrarily blurted out. By way of example, people took pictures with the front facing cameras on their phones so often that referring to them by name grew to be too much of an inconvenience, hence the word “selfie” was born. Even though this word expresses a concept already represented by other words in the English language, we must embrace it as a reflection of the advantages of an evolving language to suit new situations and explications.

Beyond day-to-day interpersonal contexts, dictionaries also take into account many different eras and periods of time, where commonly used words differ radically. Rather than using the currently popular “ ” to express laughter, someone ten years ago may have used the acronym “lol” or even “that was funny.” Though they may not follow the “traditional” words so fondly used in literature, these words belong in the dictionary to reflect the communicative necessities of our time period. If someone were to create a period piece of historical fiction about the 2010’s they would be imprecise to neglect emoji text and acronyms within the culturally pertinent online conversation of the time period.

Though new words and means of expression are increasingly unconventional, ignoring them would limit the evolution of the English language, preventing people from adapting to the ever complicating world around them. Communication is part of what makes humans sentient, and to use obsolete vocabulary is to rid us of this crucial ability.