Keeping up with our changing language

As crossword compilers, we receive a huge amount of feedback from our puzzlers about words. This feedback is invaluable to us, whether it’s complimentary or critical. One criticism we sometimes hear is about words we use that the puzzler feels are not ‘proper’ English words.

Many decades ago, we were taught at school to avoid using words such as 'okay' and 'alright' at all costs, as they weren’t acceptable English.

When we first used these words in a crossword grid, we had a flurry of irate complaints. “No, this is NOT okay, or all right!” one appalled puzzler wrote. These words are now listed in both Oxford and Collins dictionaries. Okay has become one of the most frequently used and recognised words in the world. Alright has merely followed the example of ‘already’ and ‘altogether’ in a natural merging of words, but for our bewildered puzzler, the voice of that long-ago English teacher still rang in his ears.

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Our tech-saturated lives have changed the English language

The teachers were right at that time, but English has never been static. It has always been on the move, changing according to the fashions and needs of the speakers.

I can sympathise with this attitude because I have my own pet hates, such as using ‘impact’ and ‘gift’ as verbs. Why gift a present when you can give it? However, I should just go with the flow because there’s no stopping this great ocean of language – the answer is to just keep up.

We look to the dictionary to find confirmation of real words as well as meaning, pronunciation and etymology. But the lexicographers are listening to us, the speakers, to keep the vocabulary up-to-date, and to reflect what people are actually saying now, rather than fifty years ago.

Not that long ago, a browser was a person who looked at goods in shops. “Can I help you?” – “No thanks, I’m just browsing.” A dongle was a gadget that a Boy Scout used to tie his scarf. The boy might have been a class monitor, who went surfing after school and then had a feed of chips, listening to the birds twitter or the baby birds tweet. These highlighted words have all been hijacked by the computer world, for other meanings.

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Are you using these social network buzz words?

Naturally as crossword compilers we have an up close and personal relationship with our dictionaries. I would advise anyone who wants to keep up with the changes in the English language to update your dictionaries regularly, or use the online versions which are always being renewed.

Examining lists of new words being added to dictionaries is always fascinating reading. For instance, new words added to the Collins English dictionary include onesie, selfie and photobomb. A onesie, as you probably know, is that loose-fitting, casual jumpsuit worn by adults as nightwear. The selfie was also Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year for 2013. It was first used in an Australian internet forum, that picture of oneself taken by oneself. It caught on around the English-speaking world, followed closely by the invention of the selfie stick, that annoying gadget tourists poke each other in the eye with. (And yes, I do use one myself).To photobomb means to spoil a photo by unexpectedly appearing behind the subject, as a prank.

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Say cheese! Selfie sticks have revolutionised the way in which people take photos

Social media is responsible for most of this new vocabulary. Texting is a new form of language, involving ingenious forms of abbreviations and code words. You have to admire the inventiveness of English speakers when faced with all the social, political or technological changes that have happened, especially in the last few decades.

The importance of keeping up with new words is illustrated by the acronym LOL, which stands for ‘laughing out loud’. It has been in use since 1989, believe it or not and has been in the Oxford Dictionary since 2011. A friend of a friend of mine texted a recently bereaved cousin: ‘Sorry for your loss. LOL’ - he thought it stood for ‘lots of love’.

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LOL stands for 'Laugh out loud' NOT 'Lots of love'

The fact that you’re reading this article on WYZA’s website means you are already online, and no doubt familiar with some of the many advantages of networking.

Some more tech-centric words are tweep ‘a person who tweets on Twitter’, hashtag ‘a phrase starting with # that classifies its accompanying text’ and crowdfunding ‘encouraging friends, colleagues and strangers to donate to a project or venture’.

How to keep up with all these new terms? Befriend young people, the younger the better, or become familiar with social media. Technology is not just for the young. My 90-year-old aunt loves keeping up with her family on Facebook. Many older people have discovered that Skyping is a great way to bring relatives from faraway destinations right into their living rooms. Twitter has become more popular too.

While the internet has taken the place of the local dance hall as a place of introduction, it has also replaced snail mail, our postal system, as an instant emailing, texting or tweeting forum. Instead of complaining we should probably embrace it – the more we use it, the more we will learn about the latest technical innovations and the new words and definitions that come with them.

Of course, solving crosswords is another way to keep up with our changing English language and so is reading – newspaper articles, magazines and books. And if you don’t know what something means, you can always Google it!

What are your word or grammar pet hates? Let us know in the comments below.

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