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A celebration of new words

19 May 2008

Susie Dent is the author of Oxford University Press's Words of the Year, which will come out in September. In Publishing News she writes about the process of capturing new slang as it enters our vocabulary, and deciding which words will go in the new edition of the book.

Collecting information about language is much more efficient than it used to be. The Oxford English DictionaryWonderful online resource giving 'a truly astounding picture of the English language as an extraordinary living phenomenon' (Robert McCrum); Over 500,000 words's continuous monitoring reading programme collects evidence throughout the year. The two billion words in the Oxford English Corpus make it a database of current language and into it are fed journals, newspapers, novels, blogs and transcriptions of chat-room and street conversations - in short English as it is used everywhere today. It is then possible to observe changes and to track and document trends in the way people write and talk.

Naturally OUP work on this endeavour to keep their main database as up to date as possible for new editions of the Oxford English Dictionary. But Words of the Year is intended to be 'a first charting of current trends' and provides a fascinating snapshot of changes in the language. This means that many of the words that Dent chooses to include will be ephemeral - and many have already proved to be no more than words of the moment. New words such as bling, blog, hoodies and footprint (of the carbon variety) have established their place in the vocabulary, but others, such as Y2K and the millennium bug proved to be only of their time, and many words such as TMI (text message injury) and memail (an attention-getting email) have not lasted the course.

Slang moves fast and in these days of instant communication a new word can race across the globe in no time, often adopted out of English and used by many non-native speakers as well. Many would decry the increasing informality of the way language is used, especially in email and text messages, but Dent reckons that new slang has always been with us and has added many new words to enrich our vocabulary.

Although Chinese is spoken by a vast number of people, English has become the language of international communication and is spoken across the globe. New words often come from social or technological developments and these can take place anywhere. American English has major sway in the scientific arena and American culture still dominates the airwaves, but the distinctions between that and English English are being lost in a new international version which draws on both.

Writers for whom English is their native language have a huge advantage in reaching a worldwide market, so much so that many non-native speakers are now writing and publishing in English. We should celebrate the rich and changing diversity of the language, and grasp the opportunities it offers to write for an international audience, now easily reached through the Internet.