The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Purists may object, but new words in the Oxford Dictionary of English indicate the ways in which a living language changes

Cogito ergo sum is a well known aphorism of René Descartes. This declaration which equates man’s existence to his ability to think leaves implicit one very crucial dimension. The ability to cogitate is inextricably linked to man’s ability to express what he thinks. Thought is thus inseparable from language and transitively language is inseparable from existence. The state of a language is thus a reflection of the society in which language performs an all-important function. The simple needs of primitive man were adequately met through gestures and sounds. As society grew more complex, the nature of language and the relationship between words and things became more complicated and varied. Hence, the assumption that language is a reflection of society and culture. Languages that failed to respond to the more complex needs of an evolving culture and society fell by the wayside and came to be considered as dead languages. One has to think of Sanskrit in India and Latin in Europe. Both have been reduced to the language of ritual. Nobody speaks them in everyday life. English, on the other hand, originating in medieval times, has adopted swiftly to the modern world and its requirements. One evidence of this is the way in which English adds to its stock of words by drawing from other languages and from contemporary usage.

The Oxford English Dictionary is, of course, the imprimatur of what is considered English and what is not. The OED is less amenable to change than other smaller dictionaries that are prepared under its aegis. It is in these dictionaries that new words serve their apprenticeship before making the grade to enter the hallowed pages of the OED. The latest edition of the Oxford Dictionary of English provides many examples of the way through which English replenishes its stock. Thus comes “eeyorish” from the gloomy but lovable donkey in Winnie the Pooh. From the popular television show, Sesame Street enters “muppet” to refer to a very stupid person. More interesting are the additions obviously linked to the computer and the internet: “blog” as short for web log; and “egosurfing” to refer to someone searching the Internet for references to oneself. English, because it was the language of the British Empire, cannot escape the influence of multicultarism and cultural immigration from the former colonies. Thus pundits who compiled the Oxford Dictionary of English have included “chacha” for uncle and “doudou”, a Carribean term of endearment. From Yiddish comes “bashert” which demands an enormous amount of chutzpah to challenge since it means fate.

Even a muggle without any magical powers over language can guess that this is the way a language grows. It grows by trying to keep pace with living speech. Many of the additions might annoy the purist and may never make it to the OED. Yet they are signs of the close links that English has with life and its changing features. There will always be a gap between Queen’s English and the language used by eastenders, the Mancunian and the Scouse. But they are all English as she is spoke.

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