According to Emily Brewster, associate editor at Merriam-Webster, publisher of America's best-selling dictionary, this question stems from a fundamental misperception about the role of lexicography. Her job does involve helping readers avoid embarrassing misusage, Brewster tells me, though she neither sees this as her primary function, nor does she conflate evolution with vulgarity. "I can't speak for my colleagues," she says, "but I am not pained in the least when a use like sense 2 of literally finds its way into the dictionary. Lexicography requires a long view of the language. In our work, we are continually reminded that words change meaning over time."
"Human speech is always morphing along."
Leyland believes that social media and globalization will only accelerate this process, as new words now ascend into popular usage within weeks or even days of coinage. Many of these terms will eventually meet the requisite standards for entry into major dictionaries.To any purists cringing at this news, Brewster herself may serve as a source of inspiration. She admits that when she started at Merriam-Webster 17 years ago, she wasn't quite so open-minded. "I remember being a bit disdainful of chillax," she says. "It just seemed like a stupid coinage to me." With time, however, her horizons broadened. When charged to write an official definition for the word twerk, she took to the task with aplomb."I can't say I love every new word I come across," she says, "but I have true affection for new words generally. It's fun to see the language expand."Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.
"I can't say I love every new word I come across."