What do Southern rappers, Indian movie stars and terrorists have in common? They’ve all had a part in contributing new words to the Merriam-Webster and the Concise Oxford English dictionaries.
Crunk, Bollywood and agroterrorism are a few of the many words both dictionaries have decided to add to their collections, along with sudoku, ginormous, celebutante and, my favorite, hoodie.
I never imagined these new words would be controversial, but apparently I was wrong. I heard about the words’ new legitimacy from a friend who was so annoyed that people could now say crunk and be speaking proper English. However, as much as I hate hearing “Get crunk” yelled on football Saturdays, I had no problem with the word’s newfound status.
The idea of proper English is extremely arbitrary. Even if you think you speak proper English sans accent, you are speaking a dialect of English. The only difference is that you are speaking the dialect in power.
Before language standardization, all the dialects and variations of English in Britain stood on pretty equal footing. It was only when London began to consolidate political and economic power that its particular dialect became the standard, which circulated thanks to the printing press.
In America now, we think of Standard English as the mid-Western, news-broadcaster dialect even though a few decades ago, the standard was based in the Northeast. Where though, do you find people who actually speak like Brian Williams or Katie Couric?
Certainly not in the South with its famous drawl, the Northeast with its penchant for leaving out R’s or even the Midwest with its nasal A. Maybe people in Oregon speak this elusive proper English, but the point is that proper English is something that we have made up and routinely change.
We may be resistant to language change because so much of our identity is based on how we speak. I wondered then, if the opposition to some of the new words doesn’t reflect some broader societal bias. Call me presumptuous, but I can’t imagine the addition of words like abdominoplasty or agroterrorism would spark fear that the English language is collapsing. These words are scientific and relevant to current events; they are words mainly used by the educated upper class.
But how are those words any more legitimate than crunk and ginormous? Maybe, this legitimacy is because abdominoplasty and agroterrorism aren’t made up but instead come from preexisting words. If that’s the logic, crunk comes from crazy and drunk (while also denoting a style of music) and ginormous comes from gigantic and enormous.
The problem with these words doesn’t seem to be their meaning or formation, but rather who uses them. It seems society is more willing to accept words made up by a doctor or a politician rather than a rapper or a preteen girl. Really though, I don’t see how one has more linguistic power than the other. I know I’ve certainly said ginormous and hoodie way more than I’ve said mesotherapy or obesogenic.
With language, I say the more the merrier. Go add crunk and ginormous. It doesn’t mean I have to use them or that they are appropriate for a paper; it just means that if I say crunk to my mom (highly unlikely) she can then look it up in the dictionary.
Language isn’t static. If it were unchangeable, we would still be speaking and writing in Old English. What’s new one day is classic the next, as proven by the many words and phrases Shakespeare invented, such as go-between, inauspicious and pomp and circumstance.
Regardless of whether you buy my argument, it’s worth knowing that crunk was actually in the dictionary in the early 1900s. It was the past tense of the sound a crane made.
Rachel Wagner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.