Why the Oxford English Dictionary Declared 'YOLO' and 'Clickbait' to Be Words

We talked to the editor of the New Words department about how the staff determines which words to include each year.

by Morgan Harries
Sep 13 2016, 4:20pm

Volumes of the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Photo via Flickr user mrpolyonymous

Once again, the Oxford English Dictionary has been updated. Among its most recent additions, it revealed yesterday that "yogalates," "YOLO," and "clickbait" can now all be certifiably used to win a game of Scrabble.

Like naming the crying face emoji the word of the year in 2015, these additions could all be construed as the desperate search for an ever-receding relevance among a generation that doesn't even seem to need words anymore—a generation that can communicate almost only using tiny images of eggplants. But there must be more to it than that, surely?

In an effort to understand how this mammoth, centuries-old institution has found itself demanding its doctors of lexicography to define the word "moobs," I asked Jonathan Dent—editor of the New Words department—how and why they add new words to the dictionary every year.

VICE: Why does the OED seem particularly keen to include slang and even emojis lately?
Jonathan Dent: While OED updates do typically include additions reflecting recent developments in colloquial English, this is one small part of all new material that accompanies our quarterly batches of entries from the whole history of English. YOLO, one of yesterday's new additions to OED, has been added as just one part of the revision of a batch of entries beginning with "Y" in this update.

So how do new words come to your attention? Is there a person whose job it is to monitor new words on Twitter and Instagram and that kind of thing?
We have various ways of keeping up-to-date with developments in the language: our reading programs, which read books, newspapers, and magazines; electronic corpuses and databases of texts, which we can use to track and automatically identify new words; examples submitted by the public; and personal observation by Oxford editors, researchers, etymologists, and bibliographers. And yes, since the beginning of the project to revise the dictionary and produce an updated third edition, OED editors have been making use of online sources such as newsgroups, websites, blogs, and, more recently, Twitter.

So how do you go about tracking down the earliest possible recorded use of a word that started its life somewhere deep on the internet?
Although OED is, in essence, a record of the written language, the tendency of novelists, songwriters, screenwriters, etc. to represent modern colloquial English makes it relatively easy for us to find easily citable example slang. Even in the earlier period of English, poets and playwrights provide evidence of contemporary spoken usage, and slang dictionaries have a long history, stretching back to the 17th century. These days sources such as hip-hop lyrics or sitcom or soap-opera scripts frequently provide evidence of colloquialisms.

So how long do you spend on one entry? Does it occasionally happen that by the time you get around to including a very current piece of slang, the common usage of the word has fallen out of fashion?
OED tries to avoid including short-lived items—flashes in the lexical pan—by requiring evidence of continued use before considering the word or phrase for inclusion. Most contemporary words added to the OED have to have at least ten years of demonstrable use—in some cases, five is acceptable; in a very few, slightly less than this—before they're drafted. Of course, it's part of the role of a historical dictionary to also record extinct or obsolete items of vocabulary, as well as contemporary new words. It's hard to quantify how long it takes to draft an OED entry: A first draft of a single [meaning of a new word] takes half a day to a day for a single editor to complete, but this draft then spends six months to a year being revised, refined, and improved by other editors, etymologists, and bibliographers.

Your inclusions seem to represent shifts in political, cultural, and social spheres—"afrofuturism" and "gender fluid" are two good example additions. Do you think inclusion in the OED gives these words a sense of extra legitimacy?
Because of our inclusion criteria, OED reflects the social shifts and trends represented in the language rather than authorizing them, although I think it's very understandable that any increase in the visibility of a new word that expresses something that people feel to be important to their own identity or experience will be viewed by them as positive. It's also a testament to the adaptability and power of English that it is constantly evolving and accommodating changes in the way we think about ourselves, our relationships, and the world around us.