Why words like ‘squee,’ ‘moobs’ and ‘YOLO’ really end up in the Oxford English Dictionary
For many logophiles, the announcement of a new batch of words in the Oxford English Dictionary is a delight.
The dictionary did not disappoint this week, when it ushered in more than 500 new and revised words in its quarterly update.
There were splendiferous tributes to the 100th birthday of children’s book author Roald Dahl: Dahlesque. Scrumdiddlyumptious (“for those occasions when scrumptious simply won’t do”). Oompa Loompas. The witching hour.
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Also making its debut was “‘Merica” the noun, “a truncated form of ‘America,’ now often used ironically or self-consciously draw attention to emblematic or stereotypical American ideals, institutions or traditions.” (The word takes numerous alternate forms, including “‘Murica” and “‘Murrica.”)
And then there were the new entries that might make you think you had accidentally clicked on UrbanDictionary.com instead: Moobs. YOLO! Resting b—h face. Squee!
The ‘long view’ on language
But these words belong in the Oxford English Dictionary every bit as much as, say, neuroplasticity or cheeseball, two other new entries, according to Katherine Martin, the head of U.S. dictionaries for Oxford University Press. After all, the dictionary is a record of the past 1,000 years of English — one that includes “everything that is considered to ever have been a significant word.”
“We’re sort of taking the long view,” Martin said. “The slang words of today, if they rise to a level of being something you can imagine that, in 50 years, someone might encounter and wonder, ‘What is that?’ — we want there to be a record of it.”
What the Internet has done, in a sense, is speed up and document more clearly the evolution of the English language, she added.
“Not only is it not new but it is also an incredibly powerful force that has driven the creation and dissemination of new vocabulary,” Martin said. “What I think is interesting is how we persist in thinking that the language of the Internet is different from the English language, even though most of us spend 90 percent of our time communicating over the Internet.”
A closer look at some of the new words reveals that they’re not as new as one might think. Squee, for example, has represented “a high-pitched squealing or squeaking sound” since as early as 1865, when it was first used in this sentence: “‘Wheen, squee, there, twiddle’, went the third violin.”
For the next 150 years, it continued to be used periodically, but mostly for inanimate objects and nonhuman animals. Then, in a 1998 Usenet newsgroup post about “Star Wars,” one person “squee”-ed in the sense we know it today: “Thanks to everyone that wrote, I’ll be getting one in the mail soon! 🙂 Squee! I am so happy.”
And the rest is Internet history.
Everything old is new again
“Under normal circumstances, we might eventually have added [squee] when we were revising that section [that included the word] because it’s pretty low frequency,” Martin said. “And then all of a sudden in the late ’90s and early 2000s, the usage of squee becomes much more common.”
This happens more frequently than not, Martin said. Part of the delight in going down the OED rabbit hole is learning that the etymology of many words actually extends back to long before the Web existed. For example, when the dictionary’s editors sought to make a new entry for “O.M.G.” in 2011, lexicographers were surprised to discover the first instance was from a 1917 letter written to Winston Churchill.