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The dictionary, emoji, and redefining the word 'word'

The dictionary, emoji, and redefining the word 'word'


Face with Tears of Woe

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As autumn grows colder and fallen leaves crunch beneath our thick-soled boots, we, as People Of The Internet, annually await, or bemoan, year-end lists and superlatives. While more patient humans may consider it far too early to release a "best of" highlight list for the year past (reminder: it is mid-November), Oxford Dictionaries has chosen to get a head start on its Word of the Year award.

Grammar geeks, like myself, take this as a time to learn something new about the way our culture is adapting language to best fit our modern society, perhaps to inform our decisions on what is considered acceptable in writing. This year, however, the highest lexical honor has been bestowed upon an emoji: Faces with Tears of Joy. I generally trust the Oxford Dictionaries; while not my dictionary of choice, it has a reputation that garners respect from those of us who make it our business to understand how and why words are put together and used. Choosing an emoji as Word of the Year for 2015 is contradictory in and of itself, as emoji are, by definition and I doubt I need to spell this out, not words. If one of the most revered language authorities in the world bastardizes its own definition of the word "word," what use are any rules of morphology?

Emoji are not words

Now I understand that language is meant to evolve, and I am not a grammar purist, but language is bound by rationality — if I can find logic behind something otherwise petty or nonsensical (looking at you "farther" vs. "further"), there’s less cause for concern. And I understand the importance contrasting Ms. Language Person’s Guide to Grammar with the everyday language we use in speech and writing, especially on the internet — "wut," "h8r," and "yaaaaas" are used almost daily in my vocabulary. But with so many choices on Oxford Dictionaries' shortlist that would make excellent selections for Word of the Year, why defy your own definition and instead choose, let’s call it what it is, a pictogram?

Furthermore, Faces with Tears of Joy, really? There are far better emoji to pick from. I understand that it was chosen because data gathered in partnership with SwiftKey showed that it was the most frequently used emoji in the world, but since when has a Word of the Year prize ever been awarded to the word that was the most often said or written? "The": a riveting choice! "Of": stellar and unique! "And": who could forget the banner year for conjunctions!

Oxford Dictionaries could have more esteem for words and their ever-changing use in our lives, or at the very least, picked a spicier emoji as the quintessential "word" of 2015. My vote is for "lumbersexual."