A lot of eyes rolled this week when “woke” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary. The addition, and similar inclusions of slang in recent years, makes it seem like the dictionary of record is maybe becoming even more dominant, deciding which words from marginalized communities get to be considered ‘real’ or not. “Woke” — which someone on Urban Dictionary in 2015 defined as “a reference to how people should be aware in current affairs” — has already been defined, understood, and used by millions of people for years. But only now is it being lent authority by the authority on words and language itself, the OED. Or at least that’s how many news reports would like to have you think of this and the many other additions to language dictionaries that are announced every year.
As the Oxford English Dictionary explained in its June 2017 update, “woke” used to simply mean “awake.” But OED lexicographers traced the origin of its newer definition back to a 1962 New York Times article by black author William Melvin Kelley. So “woke” — as used in the OED example sentences “we need to stay angry, and stay woke” and “the West Coast has the wokest dudes” — means what you probably already knew it did: “Alert to injustice in society, especially racism.”
The Daily Beast reported the news by citing the OED as “the definitive catalogue of officially accepted English words.” Highsnobiety titled an article about the addition of “stan” to the OED, “The Oxford English Dictionary Makes ‘Stan’ an Official Word, Because Eminem.” Back in 2013, when the OED added “twerk” to its register, Esquire proclaimed: “Twerk is now a real word.” These examples are just a few of many instances in media where the dictionary, especially the OED, is held up as an authority of language. And it’s understandable that the dictionary is thought of in this way. Few of us passed through elementary school without learning that the dictionary is the ultimate rulebook when it comes to language.
“It's our fault that people think that it’s an authority on life, the universe, and everything.”
It seems like ever since “bootylicious” was added to the OED in 2004, dictionaries have been trying to play catch up to ever-evolving languages of slang, especially when it comes to words originating with African Americans and other communities of color. User-generated definitions found on websites like Urban Dictionary and Genius are also giving them some competition. But in fact, lexicographers have always intended the dictionary to be more of an archive than an authority. The purpose of the dictionary has always been to record how language is being used, but the internet has allowed publishers and lexicographers to communicate that purpose differently, explained Kory Stamper, lexicographer and author of Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, to The Outline. “I think people assume that because dictionaries are dusty books that the language is this dusty book or that language is only what you find in the dictionary,” Stamper said. “And to be able to say, ‘No, language is always on the move and here's how it's moving,’ really mirrors the way that we can interact with people online.”
Thanks to the internet, it’s now easier for lexicographers to access more written materials and take note of the ways people are using and producing language. And as a result, dictionaries are updated more frequently and more robustly than they were in the days of print-only source material. “Woke” was just one of 1200 new additions to the OED this quarter alone. But even with all the technology afforded to them, lexicographers still walk a fine line between including words that are well-known enough without being too obscure. “We joke around that when we add new words we want 50 percent of the people who see that new word to say, ‘Oh my gosh that's not in the dictionary yet?’” said Stamper, who writes for Merriam-Webster. “And then we want the other half of people to go, ‘I don't even know what this word is. Why are you adding it to the dictionary?’”
“There's this sense [that] like the Bible there's something called ‘The Dictionary’ and it has some official status.”
The reputation of dictionaries as stuffy arbiters of acceptable language is alive and well, and the fault for that lies largely with dictionary makers themselves. As Stamper explained, dictionary makers marketed their works as authorities on language to sell copies in the 1800s. “[They wanted people to think] that if you owned a dictionary you had the font of all knowledge at your fingertips. So it's our fault that people think that it's an authority on life, the universe, and everything.” Lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower told The Outline that as a result of this reputation, lexicographers get pushback every time new words are added, especially when it comes to slang or words having to do with race, ethnicity, sex, or bigotry. Also frustrating to some dictionary makers is the assumption that “the dictionary” is just one consistent text across publishers. “There's this sense [that] like the Bible there's something called ‘The Dictionary’ and it has some official status,” said Sheidlower, who was previously an editor for the OED and past president of the American Dialect Society. “[People think] magically something gets put into ‘The Dictionary’ and this means X. In fact, there are lots of dictionaries out there and you can't assume anything because any one of them put something in. They are all different.”
The main thing to take away from new additions to the dictionary is that they are not declarations of which words are “real” or “official” and which ones are not. Rather, dictionaries are simply recording the way certain words are being used now, acting more as an archivist than a dictator trying to look hip. When a word like “woke” or “manspreading” has made it into the dictionary, it’s not because an all-mighty institution is telling the masses what words are appropriate to use. It’s because the masses are the real authority on language and humble dictionary makers are the recorders and researchers of what’s already going on. Dictionaries don’t create language. Communities of people do.