By Reya Mehrotra
If Geoffrey Chaucer, hailed as the ‘father of English literature’ was to be alive again, he would not get what was being said in his own mother tongue.
In December 2021, ‘floofy’ was one of the new words added to the Collins English Dictionary. It is a slang for ‘an animal, especially a cat or dog, having luxuriant fur or hair’. Similarly, ‘crypto’ (slang for cryptocurrency), ‘onion bag’ (slang for the goal in hockey, soccer, etc), ‘nelson’ (cricket slang), ‘vacay’ (informal for vacation) and ‘double-vaxxed’ (informal for having received two vaccinations against a disease), too, made the cut to the Collins English Dictionary in 2021.
Cambridge Dictionary editor Rachel Fletcher believes that the emergence of new slangs is just one of the ways in which the English language is constantly changing.
In recent times, a number of slangs and informal words has been added to the dictionary. The reasons are far from one—the rise of the ‘Gen-Z’, the social media effect, the ever-evolving language, or the post-pandemic work-from-home culture, where informality is on the rise. In fact, NFT (non-fungible token) was named the ‘Collins Word of the Year 2021’ alongside nine other words like pingdemic, neopronoun, regencycore, cheugy, metaverse and climate anxiety, among others.
In recent years, slangs like ‘butters’, which means ‘ugly’, ‘snack’ for ‘an attractive person’ and ‘grammable’, meaning ‘attractive or interesting enough to be suitable for posting on the social media service Instagram’, have been added to the Cambridge Dictionary. As for informal words around the pandemic, Cambridge Dictionary has recently added ‘rona’, short for ‘Coronavirus’, and ‘vax’, short for ‘vaccine’ or ‘vaccination’. In 2021, Internet terms ‘TBH’ (to be honest) and ‘FTW’ (for the win) were added to The Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
The year 2020 had seen a number of pandemic words like ‘quarantine’, ‘coronageddon’, ‘maskhole’, ‘covidiot’ and ‘superspreading event’ becoming a part of the daily lingo of people around the world and added to the dictionary as their usage became common. But as for slangs and informal words, it is not just because they are trending that they are finding official entries into dictionaries. What causes a word to enter a dictionary, according to Jonathan Dent, senior editor, Oxford English Dictionary (OED), Oxford University Press, is when it has been used so often and so widely that it has to be recorded and explained in an honest and evidence-based record of the language. “Descriptive dictionaries have a duty to include all the words that have justified their inclusion through sustained and widespread use,” he explains. For OED, that means all words that meet inclusion criteria from the whole history of English after the year 1150.
The making of a slang
Not all modern words might qualify as slang but could get different categorisations when being entered into a dictionary. Jonathan Dent says that OED labels words and senses according to their regional character, currency,and other factors, and as slang, colloquial, etc, according to their use. “The categorisation of particular words as ‘slang’—that is, language which is regarded as very informal, and more common in speech than writing—or as ‘formal’ or ‘standard’ English reflects how words are used at a particular point in time, rather than essential qualities of the words themselves. Yesterday’s slang word is often part of today’s vocabulary of formal or standard English, and vice-versa,” he adds.
Rachel Fletcher shares that Cambridge Dictionary too uses labels to tell users more about the contexts in which a word is typically used. The labels include information about the regional varieties of English in which a word is used, and information about the register such as whether it is informal, formal, offensive, or old-fashioned. “The entries that we label as ‘slang’ are typically extremely informal and often used by a specific group of people (young people, for instance) among themselves. For example, we can see that ‘wonga’, slang for ‘money’, is mostly used in the UK, while ‘putz’, which means ‘a stupid person’, is more common in the US, and ‘furphy’, meaning ‘a rumour’, is mostly used in Australia,” Rachel adds.
In 2020, OED added the slang word ‘zhuzhy’ (stylish, exciting), probably originally a part of the British gay slang known as Polari, but first recorded in a relatively formal context in a dramatic review of 1968. However, the word ‘ghosting’ (ignoring or pretending not to know a person, especially on social media or via text message) shares some of the contextual qualities of slang but its use has become so widespread in the ten years since it was first visible on Twitter that OED does not categorise it as slang.
Shivangi Gupta, assistant director English, British Council India, says that English has changed from the times of Chaucer to Shakespeare to Austen. “Diaspora writers have their own flavours to the language. If you have a smartphone and access to Twitter, you can introduce something that captures the imagination of many, goes viral, and then eventually ends up in the dictionary as valid usage. We have to remember that dictionaries describe how language is presently and prevalently used and understood, these are not necessarily prescriptive tools of how it ought to be used. We all contribute to shaping the language by using it,” she adds.
Shivangi’s favourite inclusions in The Merriam-Webster Dictionary are ‘whataboutism’, which is synonymous with the British English word ‘whataboutery’, and ‘copypasta’. The former means ‘the act or practice of responding to an accusation of wrongdoing by claiming that an offence committed by another is similar or worse’ and the latter is ‘data (such as a block of text) that has been copied and spread widely online’.
Rachel shares that in the past two years, about 6% of the new words that were added to the dictionary have been informal. Of those informal words, less than 1% were slangs. The reason for the small quantity is that the Cambridge Dictionary is meant to be used primarily by learners of English and since slang is mostly used by specific groups of people, it is less likely to be relevant to learners. Another characteristic of slang, shares Rachel, is that it often falls out of use relatively quickly. “Before we add a new word to the dictionary, we monitor its use over time. Only words that are used consistently over a period of time are added. A lot of slang changes too quickly to be included,” she says.
To make the process of inclusion of slangs and informal words more democratic, Cambridge Dictionary features a selection of a few words on their blogs each week for the users to decide if the word will become widely used. Words like ‘midweeker’ (a short holiday taken during the week), ‘proffee’ (a drink made by mixing cold coffee with protein powder) and ‘cardening’ (the activity of growing plants inside your car) have been recently shared on their blog.
Slang is regional
It is often popularly said that the language spoken in India changes every few kilometres. English too has no one standard form, as Shivangi Gupta, puts it. “There is not just one English, there are many ‘Englishes’,” she says. There is British and American English which are the most commonly known ones, Indian English, Australian English, Kenyan English, Philippine English, and more. So is the case with slang. Every city, state and country has its own unique slang which makes it a tedious task for dictionary curators to keep a tab and to decide whether they should make it to the dictionary or not.
For instance, while in India, the words ‘fresher’, ‘aiyo’ and ‘prepone’ might seem very common and popular, they remain restricted to Indian English.
In fact, in 2021, the word ‘fresher’, which means ‘an employee with only a limited amount of work experience; a recent graduate entering employment’, was added to the Oxford English Dictionary, shares Shivangi. “The richness of English is increased by its users every day and these changes and additions to the dictionaries are a recognition of that,” she says.
Jonathan Dent agrees that slang is typically restricted to a particular context or group of people and often varies from period to period and from region to region. “More standard varieties of written English vary in similar ways, but the particular qualities of slang words and the ways in which they are used mean that slang often varies more widely, and slang terms fall in and out of fashion more quickly than the vocabulary of standard written English. Different countries (and even different cities and towns within countries) will have their own slang, and slang terms that they share with other regions, in the same way, that they typically have standard or colloquial varieties of English which have particular distinctive local features alongside those shared with other Englishes,” he says.
Apart from the geographical boundaries, what impacts slang is also the other demographic factors like the age of a particular group of people. Another factor that dictionary curators keep in mind while including slangs in the dictionaries is informing the reader of the context in which a word is typically used so that those unfamiliar with the slang used by a set of people belonging to a different region might be able to use it correctly.
So, the next time if you hear a slang like ‘GOAT’ (greatest of all time), pop open a dictionary and find the meaning. After all, ‘Iykyk’ (if you know, you know).
New slangs that were added to English dictionaries last year
Floofy (Collins English Dictionary)
Crypto (Collins English Dictionary)
Onion Bag (Collins English Dictionary)
Nelson (Collins English Dictionary)
Vacay (Collins English Dictionary)
Double Vaxxed (Collins English Dictionary)
NFT (Collins Word of the Year)
TBH (The Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
FTW (The Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
Fresher (Oxford English Dictionary)