I have a gorgeous antique copy of Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary of the English Language—Unabridged sitting in my office. It lives right next to the antique typewriter and the antique telephone (the kind where the ear piece and mouth piece are separate and there’s a turn crank for dialing the operator). One could say I have a “thing” for old ways of communicating; I’d say I have an appreciation for the sweet nostalgia surrounding how we used to connect with one another—though inconvenient and awkward (and incredibly heavy) now, these things were once considered modern conveniences. I’m fascinated by the evolution of our communication.
The dictionary is my most favorite piece of history. It’s a recorded collection of the millions of words we’ve cultivated in our language since the beginning of time. As I page through the thickness I am in awe of the lexical treasure box in front of me… word after word each with its own unique etymological profile, yet comprehensively tells the single story of our English language (in a nice, organized, alphabetical manner!). Words matter. They are extremely powerful forms of expression that allow us to convey emotion, meaning, action, and understanding. Single words can hurt, heal, honor, change perspective, and provide inspiration. Combined together, words have the power to change lives. It’s through our language of words we connect with one another.
I worry, though, that the valuable treasures found between these sweet, musty pages are becoming tarnished and dull–that the shine of linguistic beauty found in our language is fading. As I navigate our latest technologies, now clicking through pages rather than turning them, I see new words beginning to infiltrate and cement permanently within our English culture like “OMG” “LOL” and “bootylicious.” I struggle in wonder, as I glance between my computer screen and the thousands of pages of unused terms within the dictionary, what is happening to our language. Obviously our language is evolving to match the fast-paced connections and limited confines of texting, status updates, and Tweets (we’ve come a long way from typewriters and telephones!). Our language should evolve; life dictates the need for new words that anchor new discoveries, concepts, and ideas and further our understanding of these things. However, I cannot help but ponder what these fresh abbreviations, symbols, and smashing together of slang with legitimate terms are anchoring.
We have thousands of words we never use, yet we continue adding to our lexical treasure box with words—some full of etymologically profound richness and others that seem linguistically empty to me. I do not know the minds of the lexicographers and publishers of our prominent English dictionaries, so I cannot question their purpose behind permanently penning terms, like “OMG” “LOL” into the pages of our language records. I can, however, encourage the awareness, education, and impact of the lexical beauty we’ve already cultivated and what we continue to nourish as our lexicon evolves with current times.
It is from here I’ve decided to embark on a journey—to dig through the treasure box, to learn more about the gems that live inside, to answer how so many words become forgotten, and to become enlightened to the value the newest additions bring to our historical lexicology. It is in this journey of re-discovery of our beautiful language that I hope shine-up the words that have lost their luster within the shiny, new tech-savvy communications we use today.