As an article in the Huffington Post recently noted, “The lifecycles of words are infinite…But the cycle has changed, and it’s now quite quick.”
The main thrust of that Huffington Post article was to consider the proliferation of internet ‘words’, specifically emojis that are now recognised by those who are responsible for our major dictionaries. The Oxford Dictionaries naming of the ‘tears of joy’ emoji as their ‘word of year’ for 2015 illustrates this perfectly. Interestingly, after typing the word “emoji” Microsoft Word neatly underlines it in red to tell me that it doesn’t understand it. I know the feeling.
Language, like the weather, has always changed over time. And like the weather those changes provoke fierce debate, not least over whether it’s acceptable to start a sentence with a conjunction as I have just done. However, that’s a matter of grammar and style, not lexicography. When all is said and done, you can either accept that more words are being introduced more quickly than ever before or you can rail against it. I intend to have a wee rail against it here, knowing full well that someone, probably Simon Heffer, will take exception to that use of Scottish idiom.
Emojis are pictures, not words. We might as well include hieroglyphs in our dictionaries, but (as far as I know) we don’t – yet. Hieroglyphs would, at least, have the advantage that they demonstrably stand for specific letters we can identify. Emojis represent emotions, a complex enough subject for the medical profession, never mind ordinary mortals. Emojis are most emphatically not specific words with clearly defined meanings.
It’s said that a picture paints a thousand words. Yes, that’s precisely the problem. A thousand words are capable of an exponential number of interpretations, and at that point language becomes meaningless. It may be that the powers that be at the world’s great dictionaries are right in their progressive attitude and that my somewhat more conservative approach is wrong. However, dictionaries are apparently becoming less important. According to that same Huffington Post article, “desktop traffic to the largest online dictionaries has fallen steadily … In the past year, Oxford is down 8.5 percent; Dictionary.com is down 10.2, and Merriam-Webster, the most conservative of the bunch, has a third less traffic now than it had just 14 months ago.”
I believe that once meaning becomes distorted then communication becomes difficult if not occasionally impossible and that leads to all sorts of problems. The famous “Send three and fourpence, we’re going to a dance” is just one example of how things can go wrong. Words, properly combined under the nuances that grammar introduces to a language, allow anyone to get an idea or proposition from their mind into the mind of their audience (whether in person or remote), without any other possible interpretation being made of their words. Such clarity is rare nowadays and the seeming willingness of the lexicographers “in charge” of our language to accept more and more quasi-meaningless words makes it doubly difficult for those who wish to communicate effectively both now and in the future.