“Ok,” “twerk,” “sriracha,” and “emoji.” These seemingly random words are four of the 300 new words recently added to The Official Scrabble Player’s Dictionary. Merriam-Webster has released this sixth edition of the game’s dictionary, which now contains more than 100,000 words, four years after the last version. The Medium sat down with Dr. Derek Denis, an assistant professor in UTM’s linguistic department, to discuss Scrabble and the evolution of language.
A well-known word board game, Scrabble was invented by Alfred Mosher Butts in 1933 and was originally called Lexiko. According to common folklore, the game became popular in the early 1950s when the president of Macy’s discovered it while on vacation. Prior to the official creation of the Scrabble dictionary in 1976, players could consult any desk dictionary to verify whether a word could be played.
When asked about the significance of a word being officially recognized by a dictionary, Denis explains how “the perspective on dictionaries is not that they’re the be-all end-all of what it means to be included as a word in a language. What [being included into a dictionary] practically means is that the word has reached some kind of more general awareness in the broader speech community.”
Denis emphasizes how a word does not need to be in a dictionary to be a “legitimate” word. “There [are] tens of thousands of words that will not be in a dictionary. For me as a linguist, for a word to be legitimate, it means that there is a community of people who have agreed a certain combination of sounds means a particular thing. [The words and what they stand for are] their shared norms,” Denis says.
As for the addition of shortened words such as “ok” into the dictionary, Denis attributes it to “convention.” He describes how “okay” has been used as “ok” for a long time and some “dictionaries will have some kind of criteria of what to include and oftentimes [the criteria] is a word appearing in particular kinds of media a certain number of times.” Another interesting piece of information, Denis notes, is that “ok” is “not an acronym, but a different orthographic representation” of the word “okay.”
The addition of the 300 new words into the Scrabble dictionary is a prime example of the evolution of language. According to Denis, there are multiple instances where the meaning of a word has changed over time. Denis provides the example of the word “computer.”
“A hundred something years ago, computers as we know them did not exist. But the word existed, and it referred to people—actual humans—who would compute things by hand. Over time, the meaning changed and we have this new shared norm.”
Denis explains that although social media does impact the evolution of language, it does so less often than people may think. “One thing that social media might do is make things spread faster. We are way more connected globally than we have ever been. The border between a small social group such as a high school clique and the whole world is actually very small now.”
For those who are afraid that “internet language” is ruining the English language, Dr Denis dismisses this belief: “Acronyms, such as LOL, [are] such a small part of the communicative behaviour of people online—of course they’re not going to ruin [language]. When you’re online there [are] particular types of conventions and those conventions are going to be shared. There’s nothing odd about new words coming up like that.”