Oxford Editors Scour Rock Lyrics, Internet To Learn English
''Modem'' is an easy one, but what do you do with ''hip-hop''?
For Michael Proffit and the eight other members of the Oxford English Dictionary's ''new terms'' team, keeping up with the growth of English borders on impossible.
''English has gone through huge periods of growth,'' Mr. Proffit says in perfect BBC English. ''The age of Shakespeare was one. I think this is another.''
A new word makes it into the official 20-volume, 650,000-word dictionary if it is widely used, Proffit says. Modem, the computer telecommunications device, has become a permanent part of the language, while hip-hop, a popular urban music, may disappear.
''We really look for something that's been in the language for years,'' Proffit says. ''The life span of slang may be shorter than it used to be.''
The growth in global communications, especially TV and the Internet, has made it easier for new words and slang to quickly enter and exit the language, according to Proffit. Fueled by a boom in computing and scientific discovery, roughly 3,000 words are being added to the dictionary each year, the fastest rate since at least the 1960s.
In the past, Proffit and his team only scanned English-language publications from around the world for new terms, but they also recently began scouring TV scripts, music lyrics, and conversations on the Internet -- where terms often quickly appear and vanish, leaving no written record.
''One of our [people] subscribes to various bulletin boards and discussion groups and looks through them,'' Proffit says. ''The problem is that people can't go and check [the new term] because it simply disappears.''
English-users have long borrowed terms from other languages -- such as pajamas from Hindi and kindergarten from German -- and made them their own. As a result, English -- with roughly 650,000 words -- is by far the world's largest language. French, for example, has roughly 450,000 words, and Danish about 300,000.
While France and other European nations have language academies that try to control which new words become part of the language, English has none. Proffit, who says English benefits with mixing, winces at the suggestion that his team is somehow the language's gatekeeper.
''We couldn't dictate use even if we wanted to. People simply use the words they like. That's how language works,'' he says.