For whylom the bell tolls

Last week 6,500 new words were added to Collins Official Scrabble Words. For serious Scrabble players, this book is the word bible. It’s the game’s dispute resolution mechanism. It’s the linesperson. It tells you which combinations of plastic tiles are valid, and which ones aren’t.

I happened across an NPR article on the changes. It delineated some of the new words, their meanings and their value in points. I read it idly: I’m an infrequent Scrabble player. I ought to be good at it, but I’m terrible with strategies, planning and competition generally.

It was strange, then, that my responses to the new words were so instinctive and unequivocal. I noted the inclusion of ‘twerking’ with a distinct sense of approbation. ‘Bezzy’ (slang for ‘best friend’), on the other hand, brought out the cane-waving, cantankerous old woman in me. I think my disapproval was twofold: bezzy does not exist in my own vocabulary, and I would resent its use against me on a Scrabble board because of a small but imperious voice in my head shrilling that’s not a word!

Except, according to Collins, it is. I need to adapt or die.

Some of the new words struck me as eminently reasonable additions, particularly vocabulary that’s grown from technology or the internet, like ‘Facetime’, ‘sexting’ and ‘emoji’. ‘Hashtag’ seems like it’s been sufficiently established in our lexicon to warrant an entry, as does ‘selfie’. (‘Selfie’ was the Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year in 2013, while ‘selfie stick’ made it into the Macquarie last year, so Scrabble isn’t trying anything too wild here.)

Some of the onomatopoeic interjections provoked in me a reflexive irritation on account of their spelling. Why ‘Waah’ or ‘eew’? Tertiary to this was indignation that ‘onomatopoeic interjections’ are, in fact, valid at all.  They’re grunts, and before today, I would have disputed their validity had someone thrown down ‘Yeesh’ for a triple-word score.

Some of the slang words seemed arbitrary – ‘lotsa’, ‘obvs’ and ‘wuz’. On the whole, I’m all about embracing non-standard language. I love informal English. But a silly, stubborn part of me stamps its foot – the same part that objects to ‘bezzy’. For the record, I prefer ‘bestie’ to ‘bezzy’; ‘obvi’ to ‘obvs’. But I don’t want to use any of them on a Scrabble board. Are they even real words?

Well, yeah, they are. Language isn’t static; it breathes and evolves, and dictionaries learn it from us, not the other way around. Shakespeare was responsible for introducing thousands of new words to the English language, and while you may not equate ‘newb’ to ‘savagery’ (thank you, King John), it goes without saying that every century, and every generation, has contributed to the variety and richness of our present-day vocabulary. And as new words enter our collective vocabulary, old ones start to disappear: ‘whylom’ (‘once upon a time’ or ‘formerly’), ‘ycleped’ (‘named’) and ‘nathelees’ (‘nevertheless’), as well as a bunch of other Middle English words that have died out since the 1500s. I have never described a drunk friend as ‘blotto’. Just because you don’t use or like new words doesn’t make them any less real. Whether we like it or not, ‘sexting’ has earned its place in dictionaries – and the Scrabble word bible.

Words are added to dictionaries when their usage gains currency. Merriam-Webster advises that a new word must have ‘enough citations to show that it is widely used’. The Macquarie says ‘to earn a place in a dictionary, a word has to prove that the community at large accepts it’. This isn’t something the linguistic powers-that-be take lightly. ‘Twerk’ didn’t make it in because an Oxford editor went to a Big Freedia show and decided to (literally) spread the good word.  It’s in the dictionary because it needed to be: because it’s used often enough and widely enough that it warrants citation.

And if it seems as though there’s been an explosion in the number of neologisms and portmanteaus in recent years, there has been. The internet has made the world a much smaller place. We adopt and share language, particularly slang, at a faster rate than ever before. Regional variations in English are less confusing than they were even ten years ago: when an American friend describes something as ‘sketch’, meaning dodgy or suspect, or says they’re feeling ‘salty’ – irritable – I know what they mean.

Only recently, a professor of English from University College London declared that English is currently evolving faster than ever before, and this is largely due to social media. It could be argued that plenty of these words won’t last the distance – the constantly changing nature of the internet means that we cycle through everything at a quicker pace, including fashionable vocabulary. So if words like ‘dench’ (another Scrabble dictionary inclusion that I’d never heard before today) bother you, don’t waste too much energy bemoaning the decline of the English language: chances are it won’t be around permanently.

Degeneration, evolution; po-ta-to, po-tah-to. I like learning new words, even if I never intend to use them. When I found out ‘astroturfing’ meant ‘staged or fake grassroots activity’, I thought it was cute. The first time I hear the phrase ‘on fleek’ was, I think, in a Nicki Minaj song. I was relatively late to the party: a quick Google search tells me it’s been around since 2003, popularised last year in a Vine video. Context helped me decipher it, but sometimes, like when I first read ‘lugubrious’, I have to look things up. And when I learned what ‘bae’ meant, it didn’t erase another, older word from my vocabulary. It was just an addition.

So I’m moving past my initial, instinctive dismissal of ‘bezzy’. I don’t have to use it –or like it – but it’s there in the dictionary anyway. I doubt that Heraclitus had board games in mind when he declared change is the only constant, but he wasn’t wrong. And if I ever need to dispose of a W and a Z, I’ll know I’ve got ‘wuz’ up my sleeve. Collins said so.


Jennifer Down

Jennifer Down is a writer and editor. Her writing has appeared in The Age, Australian Book Review, The Saturday Paper, Overland and Kill Your Darlings. Her debut novel, Our Magic Hour, will be published by Text in 2016.

More by Jennifer Down ›

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  1. Yeah, whenever I play my infrequent game of Scrabble I make up my own words if need be and hold ground as long as I can pretending to be an Anzac with a war chest of medals to my name.

  2. These words allow for subtlety of meaning. I use obvs quite a lot, to show either to show that a point being made (usually by me) is so clunking and dull as not to deserve even a full ‘obviously’, or to move a sentence into a humorous register.

    By the time these make any official list, people under the age of 16 have moved on, and will look wth pity at older people using yesterday’s slang. Obvs.

    Bezzy is a great sounding word.

  3. All languages evolve – if they don’t, they’re dead (Latin anyone?) New words arise from many sources. ‘Twerking’ was coined in the New Orleans bounce scene in the 1990s. Shakespeare alone added 1700+ words to English, including ‘amazement’, ‘bandit’, ‘dawn’, ‘hint’ and ‘secure’. Invaders, neighbours and trading partners have been hugely important. The number of words the Vikings added to the language is astonishing: ‘anger’, ‘call’, ‘give’, ‘knife’, ‘take’, ‘score’ – imagine modern English without those? In contrast, I doubt we’ll be using ‘twerking’ and ‘bezzy’ for very long.

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