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TEDxUofM

Anne Curzan: What makes a word "real"?

Filmed:

One could argue that slang words like ‘hangry,’ ‘defriend’ and ‘adorkable’ fill crucial meaning gaps in the English language, even if they don't appear in the dictionary. After all, who actually decides which words make it into those pages? Language historian Anne Curzan gives a charming look at the humans behind dictionaries, and the choices they make.

- Language historian
English professor Anne Curzan actually encourages her students to use slang in class. A language historian, she is fascinated by how people use words—and by how this changes. Full bio

I need to start by telling you a little bit
00:12
about my social life,
00:15
which I know may not seem relevant,
00:16
but it is.
00:19
When people meet me at parties
00:21
and they find out that I'm an English professor
00:23
who specializes in language,
00:25
they generally have one of two reactions.
00:27
One set of people look frightened. (Laughter)
00:31
They often say something like,
00:36
"Oh, I'd better be careful what I say.
00:37
I'm sure you'll hear every mistake I make."
00:41
And then they stop talking. (Laughter)
00:44
And they wait for me to go away
00:48
and talk to someone else.
00:50
The other set of people,
00:53
their eyes light up,
00:55
and they say,
00:57
"You are just the person I want to talk to."
00:58
And then they tell me about whatever it is
01:03
they think is going wrong with the English language.
01:05
(Laughter)
01:08
A couple of weeks ago, I was at a dinner party
01:10
and the man to my right
01:12
started telling me about all the ways
01:15
that the Internet is degrading the English language.
01:17
He brought up Facebook, and he said,
01:20
"To defriend? I mean, is that even a real word?"
01:23
I want to pause on that question:
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What makes a word real?
01:33
My dinner companion and I both know
01:36
what the verb "defriend" means,
01:38
so when does a new word like "defriend"
01:42
become real?
01:44
Who has the authority to make those kinds
01:46
of official decisions about words, anyway?
01:49
Those are the questions I want to talk about today.
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I think most people, when they say a word isn't real,
01:57
what they mean is, it doesn't appear
02:00
in a standard dictionary.
02:02
That, of course, raises a host of other questions,
02:03
including, who writes dictionaries?
02:06
Before I go any further,
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let me clarify my role in all of this.
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I do not write dictionaries.
02:15
I do, however, collect new words
02:17
much the way dictionary editors do,
02:20
and the great thing about being a historian
02:23
of the English language
02:25
is that I get to call this "research."
02:26
When I teach the history of the English language,
02:30
I require that students teach me
02:32
two new slang words before I will begin class.
02:35
Over the years, I have learned
02:38
some great new slang this way,
02:41
including "hangry," which --
02:44
(Applause) —
02:48
which is when you are cranky or angry
02:52
because you are hungry,
02:54
and "adorkable,"
02:58
which is when you are adorable
03:03
in kind of a dorky way,
03:05
clearly, terrific words that fill
03:08
important gaps in the English language.
03:11
(Laughter)
03:14
But how real are they
03:18
if we use them primarily as slang
03:21
and they don't yet appear in a dictionary?
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With that, let's turn to dictionaries.
03:27
I'm going to do this as a show of hands:
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How many of you still regularly
03:32
refer to a dictionary, either print or online?
03:34
Okay, so that looks like most of you.
03:39
Now, a second question. Again, a show of hands:
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How many of you have ever looked to see
03:44
who edited the dictionary you are using?
03:47
Okay, many fewer.
03:54
At some level, we know that there are human hands
03:57
behind dictionaries,
04:01
but we're really not sure who those hands belong to.
04:02
I'm actually fascinated by this.
04:07
Even the most critical people out there
04:09
tend not to be very critical about dictionaries,
04:12
not distinguishing among them
04:14
and not asking a whole lot of questions
04:16
about who edited them.
04:18
Just think about the phrase
04:20
"Look it up in the dictionary,"
04:22
which suggests that all dictionaries
04:24
are exactly the same.
04:26
Consider the library here on campus,
04:28
where you go into the reading room,
04:30
and there is a large, unabridged dictionary
04:32
up on a pedestal in this place of honor and respect
04:35
lying open so we can go stand before it
04:39
to get answers.
04:41
Now, don't get me wrong,
04:43
dictionaries are fantastic resources,
04:46
but they are human
04:49
and they are not timeless.
04:50
I'm struck as a teacher
04:53
that we tell students to critically question
04:55
every text they read, every website they visit,
04:58
except dictionaries,
05:01
which we tend to treat as un-authored,
05:03
as if they came from nowhere to give us answers
05:06
about what words really mean.
05:09
Here's the thing: If you ask dictionary editors,
05:13
what they'll tell you
05:17
is they're just trying to keep up with us
05:18
as we change the language.
05:20
They're watching what we say and what we write
05:22
and trying to figure out what's going to stick
05:24
and what's not going to stick.
05:27
They have to gamble,
05:29
because they want to appear cutting edge
05:30
and catch the words that are going to make it,
05:32
such as LOL,
05:34
but they don't want to appear faddish
05:37
and include the words that aren't going to make it,
05:39
and I think a word that they're watching right now
05:42
is YOLO, you only live once.
05:43
Now I get to hang out with dictionary editors,
05:49
and you might be surprised
05:51
by one of the places where we hang out.
05:53
Every January, we go
05:55
to the American Dialect Society annual meeting,
05:57
where among other things,
06:00
we vote on the word of the year.
06:02
There are about 200 or 300 people who come,
06:05
some of the best known
linguists in the United States.
06:08
To give you a sense of the flavor of the meeting,
06:11
it occurs right before happy hour.
06:13
Anyone who comes can vote.
06:16
The most important rule is
06:18
that you can vote with only one hand.
06:19
In the past, some of the winners have been
06:23
"tweet" in 2009
06:26
and "hashtag" in 2012.
06:28
"Chad" was the word of the year in the year 2000,
06:32
because who knew what a chad was before 2000,
06:35
and "WMD" in 2002.
06:39
Now, we have other categories in which we vote too,
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and my favorite category
06:46
is most creative word of the year.
06:48
Past winners in this category have included
06:50
"recombobulation area,"
06:53
which is at the Milwaukee Airport after security,
06:56
where you can recombobulate.
07:00
(Laughter)
07:02
You can put your belt back on,
07:04
put your computer back in your bag.
07:05
And then my all-time favorite word at this vote,
07:10
which is "multi-slacking."
07:13
(Laughter)
07:15
And multi-slacking is the act
07:18
of having multiple windows up on your screen
07:20
so it looks like you're working
07:23
when you're actually goofing around on the web.
07:24
(Laughter) (Applause)
07:26
Will all of these words stick? Absolutely not.
07:33
And we have made some questionable choices,
07:36
for example in 2006
07:39
when the word of the year was "Plutoed,"
07:41
to mean demoted.
07:43
(Laughter)
07:45
But some of the past winners
07:50
now seem completely unremarkable,
07:52
such as "app"
07:55
and "e" as a prefix,
07:57
and "google" as a verb.
07:59
Now, a few weeks before our vote,
08:02
Lake Superior State University
08:06
issues its list of banished words for the year.
08:08
What is striking about this
08:12
is that there's actually often quite a lot of overlap
08:14
between their list and the list that we are considering
08:17
for words of the year,
08:20
and this is because we're noticing the same thing.
08:22
We're noticing words that are coming into prominence.
08:26
It's really a question of attitude.
08:29
Are you bothered by language
fads and language change,
08:32
or do you find it fun, interesting,
08:35
something worthy of study
08:39
as part of a living language?
08:40
The list by Lake Superior State University
08:43
continues a fairly long tradition in English
08:45
of complaints about new words.
08:48
So here is Dean Henry Alford in 1875,
08:50
who was very concerned that "desirability"
08:54
is really a terrible word.
08:57
In 1760, Benjamin Franklin
08:59
wrote a letter to David Hume
09:02
giving up the word "colonize" as bad.
09:03
Over the years, we've also seen worries
09:07
about new pronunciations.
09:09
Here is Samuel Rogers in 1855
09:11
who is concerned about some
fashionable pronunciations
09:14
that he finds offensive,
09:17
and he says "as if contemplate were not bad enough,
09:19
balcony makes me sick."
09:22
(Laughter)
09:25
The word is borrowed in from Italian
09:28
and it was pronounced bal-COE-nee.
09:30
These complaints now strike us as quaint,
09:34
if not downright adorkable -- (Laughter) --
09:37
but here's the thing:
09:42
we still get quite worked up about language change.
09:45
I have an entire file in my office
09:49
of newspaper articles
09:51
which express concern about illegitimate words
09:54
that should not have been included in the dictionary,
09:57
including "LOL"
09:59
when it got into the Oxford English Dictionary
10:00
and "defriend"
10:02
when it got into the Oxford American Dictionary.
10:04
I also have articles expressing concern
10:07
about "invite" as a noun,
10:09
"impact" as a verb,
10:12
because only teeth can be impacted,
10:14
and "incentivize" is described
10:17
as "boorish, bureaucratic misspeak."
10:20
Now, it's not that dictionary editors
10:24
ignore these kinds of attitudes about language.
10:26
They try to provide us some guidance about words
10:29
that are considered slang or informal
10:31
or offensive, often through usage labels,
10:34
but they're in something of a bind,
10:37
because they're trying to describe what we do,
10:38
and they know that we often go to dictionaries
10:42
to get information about how we should use a word
10:44
well or appropriately.
10:47
In response, the American Heritage Dictionaries
10:49
include usage notes.
10:52
Usage notes tend to occur with words
10:54
that are troublesome in one way,
10:56
and one of the ways that they can be troublesome
10:58
is that they're changing meaning.
11:01
Now usage notes involve very human decisions,
11:03
and I think, as dictionary users,
11:06
we're often not as aware of those human decisions
11:08
as we should be.
11:10
To show you what I mean,
11:11
we'll look at an example, but before we do,
11:12
I want to explain what the dictionary editors
11:15
are trying to deal with in this usage note.
11:17
Think about the word "peruse"
11:20
and how you use that word.
11:23
I would guess many of you are thinking
11:27
of skim, scan, reading quickly.
11:29
Some of you may even have some walking involved,
11:34
because you're perusing grocery store shelves,
11:37
or something like that.
11:39
You might be surprised to learn
11:41
that if you look in most standard dictionaries,
11:43
the first definition will be to read carefully,
11:45
or pour over.
11:48
American Heritage has that as the first definition.
11:50
They then have, as the second definition, skim,
11:53
and next to that, they say "usage problem."
11:56
(Laughter)
12:00
And then they include a usage note,
12:02
which is worth looking at.
12:04
So here's the usage note:
12:06
"Peruse has long meant 'to read thoroughly' ...
12:08
But the word if often used more loosely,
12:10
to mean simply 'to read.' ...
12:12
Further extension of the word
to mean 'to glance over, skim,'
12:14
has traditionally been considered an error,
12:17
but our ballot results suggest that it is becoming
12:19
somewhat more acceptable.
12:22
When asked about the sentence,
12:23
'I only had a moment to peruse the manual quickly,'
12:25
66 percent of the [Usage] Panel
12:28
found it unacceptable in 1988,
12:30
58 percent in 1999,
12:32
and 48 percent in 2011."
12:34
Ah, the Usage Panel,
12:38
that trusted body of language authorities
12:40
who is getting more lenient about this.
12:42
Now, what I hope you're thinking right now is,
12:45
"Wait, who's on the Usage Panel?
12:47
And what should I do with their pronouncements?"
12:51
If you look in the front matter
12:54
of American Heritage Dictionaries,
12:56
you can actually find the names
12:58
of the people on the Usage Panel.
12:59
But who looks at the front matter of dictionaries?
13:01
There are about 200 people on the Usage Panel.
13:03
They include academicians,
13:06
journalists, creative writers.
13:08
There's a Supreme Court justice on it
13:10
and a few linguists.
13:12
As of 2005, the list includes me.
13:14
(Applause)
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Here's what we can do for you.
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We can give you a sense
13:26
of the range of opinions about contested usage.
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That is and should be the extent of our authority.
13:32
We are not a language academy.
13:35
About once a year, I get a ballot
13:38
that asks me about whether new uses,
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new pronunciations, new meanings, are acceptable.
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Now here's what I do to fill out the ballot.
13:48
I listen to what other people are saying and writing.
13:51
I do not listen to my own likes
13:54
and dislikes about the English language.
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I will be honest with you:
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I do not like the word "impactful,"
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but that is neither here nor there
14:04
in terms of whether "impactful"
is becoming common usage
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and becoming more acceptable in written prose.
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So to be responsible,
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what I do is go look at usage,
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which often involves going to look
14:16
at online databases such as Google Books.
14:18
Well, if you look for "impactful" in Google Books,
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here is what you find.
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Well, it sure looks like "impactful"
14:27
is proving useful
14:29
for a certain number of writers,
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and has become more and more useful
14:32
over the last 20 years.
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Now, there are going to be changes
14:36
that all of us don't like in the language.
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There are going to be changes where you think,
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"Really?
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Does the language have to change that way?"
14:44
What I'm saying is,
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we should be less quick
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to decide that that change is terrible,
14:51
we should be less quick to impose
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our likes and dislikes about words on other people,
14:56
and we should be entirely reluctant
15:00
to think that the English language is in trouble.
15:03
It's not. It is rich and vibrant and filled
15:05
with the creativity of the speakers who speak it.
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In retrospect, we think it's fascinating
15:12
that the word "nice" used to mean silly,
15:15
and that the word "decimate"
15:18
used to mean to kill one in every 10.
15:20
(Laughter)
15:24
We think that Ben Franklin was being silly
15:29
to worry about "notice" as a verb.
15:34
Well, you know what?
15:36
We're going to look pretty silly in a hundred years
15:38
for worrying about "impact" as a verb
15:41
and "invite" as a noun.
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The language is not going to change so fast
15:46
that we can't keep up.
15:48
Language just doesn't work that way.
15:50
I hope that what you can do
15:52
is find language change not worrisome
15:54
but fun and fascinating,
15:57
just the way dictionary editors do.
15:59
I hope you can enjoy being part
16:02
of the creativity that is continually remaking
16:04
our language and keeping it robust.
16:09
So how does a word get into a dictionary?
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It gets in because we use it
16:15
and we keep using it,
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and dictionary editors are paying attention to us.
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If you're thinking, "But that lets all of us decide
16:23
what words mean,"
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I would say, "Yes it does,
16:28
and it always has."
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Dictionaries are a wonderful guide and resource,
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but there is no objective
dictionary authority out there
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that is the final arbiter about what words mean.
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If a community of speakers is using a word
16:46
and knows what it means, it's real.
16:48
That word might be slangy,
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that word might be informal,
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that word might be a word that you think
16:55
is illogical or unnecessary,
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but that word that we're using,
16:59
that word is real.
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Thank you.
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(Applause)
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About the Speaker:

Anne Curzan - Language historian
English professor Anne Curzan actually encourages her students to use slang in class. A language historian, she is fascinated by how people use words—and by how this changes.

Why you should listen

Anne Curzan is a collector of slang words, a dissector of colloquialisms and a charter of language evolution. To put it most simply, she is a Professor of English at the University of Michigan who studies how the English language works and how it has changed over time. As she puts it in her talk, “The English language is rich, vibrant and filled with the creativity of the people who speak it.”

In addition to sitting on the usage panel for American Heritage dictionary since 2005, Curzan is also an author—her latest book is called Fixing English: Prescriptivism and Language History. She also co-hosts the show “That’s What They Say” on Michigan Radio, all about language and grammar, and writes regularly for The Chronicle of Higher Education’s language blog, Lingua Franca.

More profile about the speaker
Anne Curzan | Speaker | TED.com