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If a word isn’t in the dictionary, does it have meaning?

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The English language has always been extremely changeable. Even non-linguists know that there was an Old English and a Middle English before our own Modern English and that these predecessors are like foreign languages to us today. Some high school students may even argue that Shakespeare’s Early Modern English is nearly indecipherable to our modern sensibilities.

Today, our language continues to evolve. In particular, our vocabulary is expanding rapidly with new words being coined, shared, and used effectively through social media. New words in the English language are nothing new. Shakespeare is credited with adding zany, new-fangled words to our lexicon (and, yes, zany and new-fangled are among his contributions). Check out these sites for more information on the words we can attribute to Shakespeare’s sense of invention:

13 Words You Probably Didn’t Know Were Invented by Shakespeare
40 Words You Can Trace Back to William Shakespeare

As we sit back and watch the many new words being invented and used today, some key questions come to mind. When is a new word allowed in our dictionaries, and who decides what words are included? Who is in charge of our language?

These questions are addressed in an entertaining and enlightening manner in a recent TED Talk by English professor and language historian Anne Curzan. In her talk, “What makes a word “real”?, she discusses new words such as defriend and adorkable, tells us how and why new words are invented, and lets us know who is minding our dictionaries. She also reveals the secret of who is really in charge of our language. Watch the video and prepared to be bedazzled (another Shakespeare word!)



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