The first monolingual English alphabetical dictionary, created by Robert Cawdrey in 1604, was more or less useless. The Table Alphabeticall contained about 2,500 words—nothing to scoff at—but experts say its “definitions” were merely arbitrary and obscure synonyms. Cawdrey, however, saw his mission as a noble one, a way to make “hard” words not only accessible to “ladies, gentlewomen, or any other unskilfull (sic) persons,” but also transferable. Witnessing the rapid development of the language with global exploration, he recognized the power and malleability of language—and this was in the 1600s.
Today, there are nearly 500,000 words in the English language dictionary, although this number is a conservative attempt to quantify something that publishers like Merriam Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary are very reluctant to do, as there are constantly words appearing and disappearing from the lexicon. Even this month, for instance, a word-obsessed 6-year-old petitioned to add “levidrome” to the dictionary, to describe words that, spelled backwards, make new words (think “stressed is desserts spelled backwards”). And for the first time last year, Merriam Webster updated the online version of their dictionary without updating print, adding 1,000 words—a nod, also, to how the growing amounts of data in our daily lives necessitate different ways of storing it.
In this era of brick and mortar book store apocalypse, the funny thing is, the dictionary is going strong. Most publishers are posting a profit on dictionary sales, even—which is impressive, when you think about the grim outlook for traditional print industries such as newspapers.
The key, Jesse Sheidlower, lexicographer and past president of the American Dialect Society, says is that while dictionaries aren’t particularly high-tech or sexy, “what dictionaries are known for is telling the truth. Right now there are a lot of questions about what is true. We want clear statements about what things are, and dictionaries provide that.” Dictionary sites are capitalizing on the spotlight, using data analytics to capture trends in word searches and then develop creative marketing content and brand personalities. Dictionary.com, for example, has been known to troll Donald Trump with dictionary definitions of words such as “oxymoron” after his speeches, and just a few days ago, the site announced the word of 2017—complicit—which had a 10,000% increase in searches after SNL’s parody of Ivanka Trump.
What does this tell us about language? Nothing we don’t already know, perhaps. Our environment influences our language, on both a micro and macro scale. And with the exponential growth of technology, our environment is changing rapidly, along with our language (the majority of those 1,000 words mentioned earlier, for example, derived from internet speech, and in 2015, the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year was actually an emoji). Cloud, troll, cookie, hashtag, the list goes on…these words have altered meanings completely. As we learned in #IS6621, technology is irreversibly altering our modes of communication, and language is just one small part of it.
This morphing of language, however, brings up another important point, arguably one that before big data has been confined to the world of lexicographers: descriptive versus prescriptive linguistics. Linguistic prescriptivism tells us how words should be used; it aims to establish a standard language or usage. Descriptivism, on the other hand, describes language as it is being used. While the two aren’t mutually exclusive, they sit at the root of lexicographical debate, but with dictionaries using more and more data to add and drop words, currently descriptivism seems to reign king. A good example is the word “snollygoster:” Merriam-Webster had dropped it from the dictionary in 2003 due to infrequent use, only to add it again in recent years after Bill O’Reilly brought it back into popularity.
I’d argue that the dictionary’s evolution stands as an effective metaphor for how we should view technology (or rather, how I’ve been grappling with it throughout #IS6621). Consider, for one, the prescriptive/descriptive debate. In a world where we’re constantly receiving more data than we can ever imagine to consume, and more advanced technology than our survival necessitates, how are we expected to utilize it? We can be prescribed one (or two, three, infinite) ways to use technology or data, but as we’ve seen with the dark side of Facebook, ISIS’ social media campaigns, or even babies riding Roombas, we don’t always heed that prescriptive definition. Often, the technology seems to lose its autonomy—its very ability to control its definition—as usage, manipulation, and demands on it constantly shape it.
And we, in turn, feel a similar lack of authority over the definition of our lives with and without technology: yes, you know that having your smartphone attached to your hand is not altogether healthy; yes, you know that it’s probably not ok that Facebook is collecting all of this data on you; yes, you know that you could most definitely survive without all of this—but yet, you can’t imagine your existence—your recognized presence in this world—without these technologies. And if you can, it’s a little unsettling. But just as with the 6-year-old’s “levidrome,” just because many things in this universe don’t actually have English words ascribed to them doesn’t mean they don’t exist. In defining ourselves, we can’t forget to give weight both to what is and is not defined by technology.
Ultimately, this class has served as a reminder that technology is a language in itself. It is powerful, deceptive, ever-changing. It can be controlled, or controlling—and while this power struggle is a constant back and forth, simply our education around that struggle is not to be understated. Consider it this way: sometimes words fail you, sometimes you put your foot in your mouth, sometimes your words come back to haunt you, sometimes you say all the right things. Many times words are slippery, many times you might not know what a word means, and there will always be more words in the world than you can ever imagine to know. After all, what constitutes a language is debated in the first place. All of the same is true for technology. And ultimately, while both language and tech are adept and commanding Frankenstein creations, it’s helpful to remind ourselves that humans created them in the first place.
The energy of #IS6621 was a reminder that just as Cawdrey’s original dictionary sprung from the human desire to record and share knowledge, so, too, has technology. Even the dictionary has not been an endpoint, because as long as there is a quest for knowledge, innovation will be continuous. In light of this fact, it’s up to us—as both creators and consumers—to consider how we are defined by, and how we define, technology. It’s important to remember that these definitions are molded both prescriptively and descriptively—which means that we have to believe that we have the power—and responsibility—to continue to change them.