Twerk, Emoji, Phablet and Other Signs of the Impending Apocalypse

The Oxford Dictionary Online has added brave new words! Society has yet to collapse.

It’s a big news story a couple of times each year: Merriam-Webster or the Oxford Dictionary announces the addition of a few new words, and everybody promptly freaks the hell out.

It happened again last week, when Oxford Dictionaries Online announced the addition of a slew of words, including “selfie,” “phablet,” “food baby,” “emoji” and, of course “twerking.” The inclusion of that last one also provided an opportunity for seemingly every television news organization on Earth to talk about the new words while running “controversial” b-roll of Miley Cyrus, in order to milk that particular story for a few more days.

The reaction was sometimes vitriolic. A CBS Radio blog post in New York saw the change as evidence that “society is falling further into the abyss.” A column in the Morgan Hill Times stated that the addition of the new words “make one question humanity.” And those were some of the more restrained reactions.

I mean, can you believe it? That these ridiculous words that no one had ever heard of as recently as a year ago have invaded the august, sacred spaces of the Oxford English Dictionary? Just how much further can the English tongue be bastardized? Whatever happened to the good, old-fashioned language, the one I grew up with? Why can’t people talk the way they used to, you know, back in my day?

Step off the ledge, everyone.

First of all, the Oxford English Dictionary has not, actually, added those words. As Slate pointed out late last week, it was actually Oxford Dictionaries Online, a completely different dictionary with completely different standards, that added those words. Though both are under the umbrella of Oxford University Press, the ODO is updated much more frequently and, I assume, with much less stuffy standards for inclusion.

As Slate pointed out, a whole lot of media outlets got this wrong. The confusion is nothing new; the Huffington Post breathlessly reported in 2011 that the “Oxford English Dictionary” had added “LOL,” “OMG” and ” “wassup.” And the same site made the same mistake last week.

The difference was made clear in ODO’s initial blog post announcing the new words but, to be fair, it was all the way down at the bottom.

But beyond the confusion about the two different Oxfords is another question: Who cares about the dictionary? Be honest—when was the last time you opened one? And why the outrage if a dictionary has been updated with unfamiliar words—if you don’t like words like “emoji” and “BYOD,” you’re always free to not use them.

And it’s not even that they’re necessarily new.

Other “new” Oxford words included “buzzworthy”—a phrase I recall MTV applying to cool new grunge videos, circa 1994—and “girl crush,” which I certainly remember people bandying about when I was in high school, also in the early ’90s.

Also on the list are tiresome tech buzzwords like “click and collect,” “digital detox” and (of course) “the internet of things.”

I do give ODO credit for including “derp,” because “derp” is great. And fans of Doctor Who will be excited that “omnishambles,” a term coined by new Doctor Peter Capaldi on his previous series The Thick of It, is not only a new word, but Oxford’s Word of the Year.

These are the kinds of topics that make me miss Jeffrey Barg’s old “Angry Grammarian” column in Philadelphia Weekly.

There are going to be new words—as long as there are new technologies, musical genres and dance moves. Sometimes it’s best to not resist the forward march of progress, and just go along with it.

That said, can we talk about the new definition of “literally”?