Lexical Lesson: Has the New York Times become an English Teacher?

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Earlier in the week, we reported with excitement about the virtual democratization of the dictionary, thanks to new tool Wordnik. Unfortunately, it seems this open attitude to language is being met with a stern caning from school mistress and pedagogue, the New York Times. This week, NYT released a list of the words that most perplex readers of the online edition. When a reader doesn’t understand a word and highlights it, the paper comes to the rescue, providing a definition. Whilst we recognize the joys of discovering new words (and who, other than a solipsistic and frankly enervating person, doesn’t become apoplectic with delight upon encountering apposite neologisms?*) when we read, is there really a need for the paper to prescribe our vocabulary lists to us? Surely the job of the NYT is to communicate news stories directly and with flair, as opposed to making us reach for our dictionaries over breakfast?

Language use, control, and obsolescence has always been a contentious issue. In France, the preeminent Académie française have been publishing their official dictionary since 1694, in a preventative move against the growing tide of Anglicization. Whilst the 1994 Toubon Law demands that all public and legal documentation is written primarily in French, and huge efforts are made to promote French in former colonies overseas, indigenous dialects such as Provençale are dying out. Meanwhile, slang (argot) is flourishing and has the Académie huffing and puffing about the purity of language.

By contrast, there are nationwide concerns in England (not just in the East End) over the obsolescence of cockney rhyming slang , and similar anxieties are being voiced over the future of local dialect in Northern Germany and the Netherlands. It seems where once a language, dialect, creole, or slang was the bane of high society, now it’s part of the establishment and a recognized aspect of national culture once threatened with annihilation.

Whilst the NYT celebrates diverse as well as foreign offerings — bildungsroman and schadenfreude were among the most looked-up words — there is still a sense that a highfalutin’ vocabulary is being foisted upon the readership rather than naturally expected of them. On the flip side, do we want the NYT to only use language which isn’t challenging, thereby managing to patronize readers in the process? Is it the role of the media, or indeed social institutions in general, to control, prescribe, and proscribe language?

Whether it is the Académie vs. argot, or the NYT vs. Wordnik or Urban Dictionary, battles continue to be fought over defining our world in language that is laconic rather than feckless, ersatz or inchoate*. As these verbal duels demonstrate, words and our passionate desires to defend them or denigrate them remain at the very least, a talking point.

*all of these words were in the NYT’s top 50 most looked-up words