anne_mikolay_2012_120This week, folks at Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary announced the new words to be included in their esteemed publication. The list includes, among others: sexting, mash-up, energy drink, man cave, game changer, F bomb, and aha moment (thank you, Oprah). When I heard the list, I had a little aha moment of my own.

Before the dawn of spell-check (is that in the dictionary?), I relied solely upon Webster’s Dictionary to check my horrendous spelling, and in my long-ago school days, obeyed the teachers’ predictable directives to “look it up in the dictionary” when I came across an unfamiliar word or phrase. The dictionary’s traditional role of primer has apparently changed; it’s now a history/anthropology book.

The words added to the dictionary in 2012 reflect current trends in society. If you turned the clock back a few years to a time sans cell phones and health fanatics, you might be inclined to identify coffee as an energy drink, and you would be blissfully ignorant regarding sexting. Clearly, as society evolves, new words emerge, and the dictionary is appropriately revised.

The first edition of the English dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, compiled by Noah Webster in 1806, included words specific to that era. Nowadays, we are no longer concerned with winterkill as defined in 1806 (killed by means of winter, as grain). To us, skittles refers to candy; to Webster, it was a bowling game. Webster stored his tea in a caddy; we store ours in cannisters or the store packaging. Fast forward: WWII earned the atom bomb and the bazooka a place in the dictionary in the 1940s. The emergence of the first mechanized car washing system in the 1950s put the words car wash in the book. The 1960s dictionary included doofus (I like that one!), glitch, microwave oven, and sexism. The 1970s gave us airhead (like that one, too!),  junk food, and surrogate mother. AIDS, boom box, channel surf, trophy wife, voice mail, and wannabe were recorded in the 80s, and bad hair day, soccer mom, and World Wide Web were listed in the 90s.

Do the dictionary’s latest entries for 2012 have you feeling clueless? (Clueless, meaning “trackless” first appeared in the dictionary in 1862; its meaning changed in 1943 to “ignorant, uninformed”; the word became popular slang with the same meaning in the mid 80s.) If you need a bit of help to understand Merriam-Webster’s latest additions to accepted language, allow me to apply the old educational trick of imparting definition by using the words in a sentence. Here goes:

After listening to a lively mash-up in his man cave, John Doe grabbed an energy drink and began secretly sexting on his cell phone, but his wife found him, had an aha moment, dropped the F-bomb, and declared his behavior a game changer in the marriage.

You won’t find that sentence in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, but rest assured there are many, many words therein that record our current society’s evolution for posterity. The dictionary, a preserver of words in time, is a treasure trove of American culture.

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Anne Mikolay

Anne Mikolay

Anne M. Mikolay joined The Atlantic Highlands Herald as a columnist in 2008. Prior to penning “The Armchair Critic,” Anne wrote feature articles for The Monmouth Journal. Her work has appeared in national...