It’s not easy to add a word to the dictionary. Editors constantly research neologisms and will give them official definitions only when those words have established a foothold in our lexicon and have made it clear they’re not going anywhere. (Keep pushing, jawn fans.) The Merriam-Webster machers added 520 words to the dictionary last month, but not without controversy.
Any measurement of our shape-shifting language is inherently subjective; for example, only one of the words or definitions below (the inexplicably all-caps COVID-19) has been added to the Oxford English Dictionary, which delivered its own update in December. (But the OED writes it as Covid-19, because the British aren’t monsters.) Here’s a roundup of a few of Merriam-Webster’s most notable (or questionable) additions.
COVID-19, n. — It took just 35 days for this word to go from coinage to official dictionary entry — a record. (The pandemic prompted an unusual midyear update last March.) The previous record-holder was AIDS, which was coined in 1982, entered the dictionary in 1984, and was still ignored by the Reagan administration until September 1985.
@, symbol — Meaning “to respond to, challenge, or disparage the claim or opinion of (someone)” — as in, “don’t @ me” — @ is the quirkiest addition in this year’s class. Good luck figuring out where it goes in the next printed dictionary, when you actually have to alphabetize it.
Performative, adj. — An old word with a new meaning: “made or done for show (as to bolster one’s own image or make a positive impression on others)” — as in, “performative outrage.” In a world so divided by language, it’s relieving to have a word that calls out posturing cowards on the left and right with equal opportunity.
Folx, pl. n. — The definition of folx is just “folks.” The dictionary goes on to note that folx is often used to “signal the inclusion of groups commonly marginalized.” It does not note that this spelling and usage are annoying and should be marginalized themselves, given that there was literally nothing exclusionary about the already gender-neutral, race-neutral, everything-neutral folks. See also: performative.
Cancel culture, n. — Ugh. This had already been co-opted by some on the extreme right, who were sad about being held mildly accountable for their lying and sedition and racism. Now that it’s in the dictionary, you’ll only encourage them.
Second Gentleman, n. — Though certain states and other countries have had second gentlemen for a while (the phrase was first documented in 1976), this one made it into the dictionary just days before Doug Emhoff became our country’s first. But there’s a problem: In its online dictionary, Merriam-Webster capitalized it. American writers often go capitalization happy and capitalize a title just because they think it sounds important, e.g., “The Vice President spoke.” No, she didn’t. “The vice president spoke” is correct, and Merriam-Webster’s haphazardly capitalizing Second Gentleman (as it does with the online — but not printed — definition of first lady) will only confuse people who are already confused about why they find Emhoff’s dad jokes and aw-shucks menschiness so oddly attractive.
Sapiosexual, adj. — “Of, relating to, or characterized by sexual or romantic attraction to highly intelligent people.” See also: Angry Grammarian readers. Hey, you.
The Angry Grammarian, otherwise known as Jeffrey Barg, looks at how language, grammar, and punctuation shape our world, and appears biweekly. Send comments, questions, and hygge to firstname.lastname@example.org.