Selfie, FOMO, BYOD, srsly, and other social media-inspired words were added to the Oxford English Dictionary last week. Here's why that was a bad idea.
Language is persuasion.
Words simplify ideas that want to be many different things simultaneously, and the definitions settled on throughout history point to a generation's particular limits on meaning. Last week the Oxford Dictionary announced the formal recognition of 65 new words, offering new anecdotal evidence of the particular web of limitations our culture has been persuaded to accept as our own.
The list is dominated by abbreviations and shorthand that don't add any new meaning to their antecedents, but simply reflect the constraints of the new technological formats. There is "srsly," the shrinking of "seriously" to make it less cumbersome to type for chronic texters. There is the onomatopoeic "squee," another concession to telling someone you're squealing with joy when communing through a medium that can't transmit sound or facial expression.
There's also "jorts," which forces a decades old thing into a new category of social condescension by making the wearing of them a willful identification with a particular social category. Then there are the acronyms, which capture an undercurrent of technological neurosis and instability, from the BYOD expectations of many new jobs, where the employee is expected to pay the cost of their own work machinery, to the FOMO of the over-networked socializer who is aware that there are parties happening every night of the week that s/he may not have been invited to.
We don't just invent new words to add to our stores, but connect the words we do have to an ongoing historical conversation about the values, ethics, and desires that we have inherited through them. When we insert into this process acronyms, initialisms, and SMS babytalk for our overworked thumbs we are acknowledging a rupture in values.
In a 1979 essay James Baldwin argued language "comes into existence by means of brutal necessity, and the rules of language are dictated by what the language must convey." There is a brutish quality to this year's additions to the dictionary. The list reads like a series of small coping devices meant to maintain a minimum standard of cultural continuity in the face of a new force that strips out spare vowels and unnecessary syllables.
There is still a wealth of ambiguity in words like "serious" that it feels premature to have created an SMS shorthand for it. In a time when so much meaning and intent can be obscured by the Internet, and when slate-faced sarcasm is often drawn from viciously serious events (as is the case with The Onion's recent Syria stories), there could be no better time for adding to our understanding of the larger idea trapped inside the smaller word.
Instead, our store of shared language seems to be in a transitional state, pairing away all of the remains of necessary human excess. In a way, this shift offers its own insight into the unnerving character of networked social bonds that are increasingly becoming primary pathways for human communication.
Because there is, in every tweet, email, and text message, a possibility of being misunderstood without ever realizing it, or realizing it too late and discovering that the medium of transmission is inadequate to undo all of the unintended interpretations in one's word choices, we begin to create a language that's begun shedding its letters, a concession to the obnoxiously unsupple nature of our cell phones and keyboards, intermediaries we can no longer hope to remove from our relationships.
In The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera described the stresses of being translated into many different languages around the world and seeing how much a work can change based on the whims and word choices of one's translators. When prompted by one of his editors, Kundera wrote a short personal dictionary describing exactly what he intended to mean when using one of his 63 chosen "key" words. The collection is simultaneously self-limiting and grandiosely romantic, defining beauty as "the last triumph possible for a man who can no longer hope;" and obscenity as "the root that attaches us most deeply to our homeland."
It's from attempts like these, which test the capacity of individual words to carry new meanings, that a living language grows. We don't just invent new words to add to our stores, but connect the words we do have to an ongoing historical conversation about the values, ethics and desires that we have inherited through them. When we insert into this process acronyms, initialisms, and SMS babytalk for our overworked thumbs we are acknowledging a rupture in values.
Our dictionaries are sighing with strain from being drawn into a time when the computer code's need to have ambiguity overshadows the human need for slowness, abstractions, and personal variation. We are learning, bit by bit, to talk like computers, and less and less like ourselves.
Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.