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OPINION | BRENDA LOOPER: A herd of words

by Brenda Looper | September 14, 2022 at 3:36 a.m.
Brenda Looper


One of the best things about online dictionaries is that they can be updated more often than the old print editions, and with expanded definitions since they're not limited by the space constraints of a physical book.

For some that may be considered a bad thing (how dare dictionaries perform their duty, which is to record how language is used, rather than just printing words "acceptable" to grammar grouches). For word nerds like myself, it's heaven, even if some of the words annoy (everyone has at least one word that sets their teeth on edge). This is where my libertarian tendencies hold that as long as those words aren't hurting anyone, it's fine; I don't have to use them, and I don't need to get upset because someone else is using them.

And if I want to campaign for "fur-nephew," "fur-niece," "furkid," "grandkitty" or "granddog" to be in a future update ... well, I'll have to get a lot more people to use them than my circle of friends. Merriam-Webster's criteria for adding new-ish words is that many people must use a word or phrase in the same way for an extended period of time.

C'mon, people, help out a girl who loves her furry family members!

Peter Sokolowski, editor at large for Merriam-Webster, said in the news release announcing the addition of 370 words and phrases, "Some of these words will amuse or inspire, others may provoke debate. Our job is to capture the language as it is used. Words offer a window into our ever-changing language and culture, and are only added to the dictionary when there is clear and sustained evidence of use." (See a selection of the additions at merriam-webster.com.)

Among the words added this go-around were several common to social media, such as "yeet" (a favorite of my friend Sarah Kinsey, meaning to throw, but also "used to express surprise, approval, or excited enthusiasm"), "sus" (suspicious or suspect), and "virtue-signaling" ("something people may be accused of if they display their attentiveness to political or social issues instead of taking effective action").

Friend and former colleague Benjamin Waldrum remarked on my Facebook post about the newest additions: "Inevitably someone will use this as the latest example of how the current generation is unworthy as we begin our swift descent into the death of Western civilization. Language, since its beginning, has always been about communication. Over time, how we do that changes, because we change, too. ... Language is like a jazz riff: constantly evolving in ways we never expect. And those ways are often delightful."

I can always trust Benjamin to get philosophical and make me think ... and to take the descriptivist (word nerd), rather than prescriptivist (grammar grouch), approach.

ASU classmate Keith Merckx, on the other hand, can be trusted to make me laugh, and his horror at the inclusion of "pumpkin spice" was no exception: "Pumpkin is already in there. Spice has a definition. Why do the two words together warrant a separate entry? Prior to the listing I still was able to puzzle out the definition using just the words."

When I noted that the combo had finally reached critical mass thanks primarily to Starbucks, he said, "Seems sus to me."

Is it any wonder these people are my friends? Word nerds just "get" each other.

With many of the other words and phrases added you might be thinking, "Wait ... wasn't that already there?" For some, it's possible that they were there but not used in the way they are now; for others, the words have become so ubiquitous recently that they seemed they were always there.

I mean, I had been using "dumbphone" (cell phone without Internet access) and "adorkable" (socially awkward but endearing) for a long time, and they've just been added.

And "supply chain"? Really? One more thing for which we can thank covid-19, since the worldwide ills caused a phrase mostly used in the business community to hit all of us. That and "subvariant" ("one of two or more distinctive forms or types of the same variant"), "emergency use authorization" ("an authorization granted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration during a public health emergency that allows for the use of a drug or other medical product prior to its full approval") and "booster dose" ("a supplementary dose of a therapeutic agent designed to increase the effectiveness of one or more previously administered doses").

If you're getting a little depressed by those new entries, take heart, as a lot of fun terms made it in as well, including one that I would have sworn was in long ago: "cootie catcher." When I was a kid, my friends and I made these paper toys all the time and made many a prediction about ourselves with them (pretty sure none of them came true). I'm just shocked kids are still making them.

I think the entry that made me smile the most, though, was "Galentine's Day." Fans of "Parks and Recreation" know it as the holiday Leslie Knope invented for women to celebrate their friendships with other women on the day before Valentine's Day. Having spent much of the past couple of months in the company of close female friends, I'd say it's worthy of celebration.


Assistant Editor Brenda Looper is editor of the Voices page. Email her at blooper@adgnewsroom.com. Read her blog at blooper0223.wordpress.com.


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