Opinion: technology may have left the dictionary on the shelf, but lexicography and Words of the Year serve as a great barometer of social change

By Chris Mulhall, Waterford Institute of Technology

A dictionary is the most formal and authoritative record of language available. It has an important social and linguistic function in how it describes the meaning and use of various elements of the lexicon. This provides an important point of linguistic reference to illustrate the context and conditions for using a word or phrase. As an institution of language, a dictionary enables the decoding of unfamiliar language or concepts as well as showing how to encode familiar linguistic elements.

Despite its standing as a reference work, the notion that a dictionary is a complete record of language is a myth. For a variety of reasons, lexicographers who compile a dictionary cannot list every form and function of a word. From an organisational perspective, this decision is influenced by many factors: spatial constraints, time limitations and the practical complexities of recording a language.

Of course, the entirety of a language can never be truly known due to the extent of its variety. English is a language spoken on several continents and existing in a multiplicity of dialects. But no single dictionary could ever truly claim to completely represent the true nature of such a complex and varied language such as English.

From RTÉ Radio One's Today with Miriam O'Callaghan, an interview with John Simpson, author of The Word Detective and former editor of the Oxford English Dictionary

Moreover, the existence of a word does not necessarily mean it merits inclusion in a dictionary. Generally, the most common words are listed, but the lexicon – the entire repository of language – contains forms that are too idiosyncratic, too localised or simply too new to be found in a modern day, general reference work. To make the list, a word or phrase must show a sustained form of usage that is both evident and measurable. This is its passport to lexicographical posterity.

It is here that technology has played an important role in the analysis of language and the modernisation of lexicography along with relieving some of the burdens previously faced by dictionary compilers. Modern dictionaries are now a de facto product of digital era with an intrinsic part of their compilation being the use of corpus resources. These provide lexicographers with millions of examples about the context and usage frequency for words which adds a real-life dimension to how a dictionary records and exemplifies language.

But technology has also reduced the human input into dictionaries. In the pre-digital age, lexicographers based compilations upon the principles of their own understanding of language, the use of various sources and the content of the earlier publications of a similar kind.

From RTÉ Radio One's Morning Ireland, Helen Harvey, assistant editor of the Oxford English Dictionary discusses the addition of twerk to the dictionary in 2015

Technology’s ubiquitous role in the design, compilation and presentation of dictionaries has undoubtedly made them more user-friendly and accessible, though there are downsides. One of the features of a paper dictionary is its bounded and finite coverage of language. While at no point complete, it serves to present language in a physical, definitive and consultative bloc with an inherent measurability. By contrast, the transition to a digitised platform has brought a very wide and almost infinite panorama that does not always provide the structured overview of the linguistic system gained by perusing words listed in alphabetic order.

To keep pace with the vivacity of language, lexicographers now monitor different kinds of linguistic change to see how language reforms and reinvents itself to describe new ideas, concepts and social trends. Major dictionary publishers annually publish their Words of the Year lists and these choices tend to be linguistic units that gained an increased relevance through their association to relevant social, economic or political matters or their use by a celebrity or public figure.

In recent times, these selections have been influenced by socio-political developments with toxic and single-use named in 2018 youthquake and fake news highlighted in 2017 and post-truth and Brexit in 2016. Their eventual transition to being listed in a dictionary is not, however, necessarily guaranteed. A dictionary describes language on its tenure rather than its topicality. The temporary popularity of some words means they become fleeting fads rather than timeless terminology. But the socio-linguistic staying power of a word is arguably the single biggest criterion in a word’s permanent enshrinement within a dictionary’s pages.

From RTÉ News, a report on this year's selection of "single use" as one of the words of the year

Yearly compendia of words are insightful in revealing the deep structural change taking place in language and the erosion of formal linguistic structures. Technology has contributed to this by enabling the creative, liberal and innovative use of word forms. One case in point is  changing format of words with the emergence of emojis as legitimate linguistic signs as well as the prevalence of portmanteau constructions, which involve the amalgamation of two words into one, such as Brexit ("Britain’s exit").

Adopting a "two for the price of one" organisation of words lays out some challenges not only in reorganising the semantic and lexical rules of language, but in creating a language structure that extends beyond the integrity of a single word and its meaning. This change is also underpinned by the fragmentation of language in a technological space that requires cursory, attention-grabbing creative language and emojis and portmanteaus are eye-catching in their look and function.

Using this as a lens of measuring language also adds a clear social dimension and function to the role of a dictionary. Considering it solely as a linguistic object is a somewhat narrow and myopic viewpoint. Language exists across different social and cultural milieus and thus it inherently integrates the features of these existences into its forms and use. Therefore, if there is inseparability between language and society then a dictionary must be considered a narrator of society as well as a record of language.

Technology has reduced the human input into dictionaries

Recent trends in nominations for Words of the Year show a global population whose daily thinking and language use have both been shaped largely by global political and economic developments. The intersection between lexicography and technology has become a powerful and interesting instrument in placing both language and the dictionary at the heartbeat of global developments.

Dictionaries still have a central role to play in our daily lives be that for learning a language, clarifying a concept or just understanding life. Technology may have consigned the paper dictionary to being a near-antiquated relic of time, but it has repurposed lexicography to operating as a barometer of social interest and feeling. As T.S. Eliot said "for last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice." The dictionary will indeed be that voice.

Dr Chris Mulhall is a Lecturer in Modern Languages at Waterford Institute of Technology


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ