What Happens to Words When They Become “Real” Words?

The OED has recently added a number of words to its dictionary, including sext, mankini, retweet, jeggings, and the symbol for heart (<3). The inclusion of words used in social media (like retweet) is evidence that social media is making an impact on our language, and the need to update the dictionary periodically shows that language is fluid, constantly transforming with our culture.  The OED’s purpose is to serve as a historical dictionary, tracing words back to their origins, updating definitions as the usage of a word changes, and adding new words as they become common in the English language.   But, as a writer, I have to ask—is there any danger to (or any value in) adding every pop-culture term to the dictionary?

To start thinking about this question, I headed to the OED online to find out how a term becomes eligible for inclusion.  The OED looks for “several independent examples of the word being used, and also evidence that the word has been in use for a reasonable amount of time” in addition to evidence that the word has reached “a level of general currency where it is unselfconsciously used with the expectation of being understood.”  So, in other words, as soon as a term becomes popular enough to be generally understood by most people and is used in multiple publications, it can be considered.  The OED reports that they track and examine many words before adding them.

Social media and internet have surely sped up this process.  Take, for example, LilC (King of Krump and judge on Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance) and his signature word bucc, which LilC uses to describe objects or activities in which “internal artistry meets external expression.” LilC has over 30,000 Twitter followers and has tweeted over 10,000 times.  He is constantly retweeted and mentioned by adoring fans.  Many of his tweets contain bucc, his followers use bucc, and all of So You Think You Can Dance’s loyal fan base (the show brought in 11.5 million votes for the finale of its last season) is familiar with the term.  So when will it become a real word? And, if it does, will it change the meaning of the word itself?  Right now, the word is associated with a type of dance that is subversive and counterculture, regardless of how mainstream (or politically conservative) the media outlet is.  If the word appears in the OED, will it become more or less removed from its original meaning?

The legitimizing effect of the OED is worth considering.  Of course, many average English-speaking people probably consult dictionary.com more often than they do the OED or pull out an actual hardback dictionary.  The truth is, though, that we are all in control of our dictionaries.  We rely on spell check, and if a word we commonly use is not recognized, we simply add it to the dictionary.  (I, for example, was tired of seeing that red squiggly line under my name.  Now Rikki, rikki, and Rik are acceptable spell check words for me).  Since we have control over what is considered a worthy word, does the OED’s inclusion or exclusion of a word really matter?  What is the point of a standardized dictionary if we’re all in control of producing our own content and the dictionaries that regulate it?

These are not rhetorical questions!  Share your thoughts–respond to my questions here or on Twitter (@rikki_rogers).