Recently, I listened to an audio book about the laborious compilation and publication of the Oxford English Dictionary, a task that took fifty years to complete. The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams was a perfect blend of well researched historical events, a likeable protagonist and her wise and capable sidekick, narrated by a reader with a talent for British and Scottish accents. Oh, and best of all, it was about words.
The book is set in late 1800’s Oxford, England. The action takes place primarily in a converted garden shed in the backyard of the editor’s home. James A.H. Murray was the lexicographer who led a team of assistants in the sorting and compiling of thousands of entries most of which were contributed by an army of volunteers from all over the globe. Slips of paper of a designated size arrived daily with the word, definition, and citation. They were then stored in a series of pigeonholes in the converted garden shed known as the scriptorium.
The lost words of the title refer mainly to those that were not deemed relevant or proper and thus did not make it into the dictionary. The main character, Esme, collects these words — all duly recorded on slips — and keeps them in a small trunk. Many of the words she collects are used by people unable to read or write, but whose speech Esme finds colorful and expressive. She seeks to acknowledge and give voice to the myriad people whose labor supports and sustains people like the educated men who work on the dictionary.
Eventually, by 1928 the entire OED was published in ten separate volumes. Since then, many of Esme’s lost words have found their way into its hallowed pages and the dictionary is updated regularly. In the last three months alone 650 new entries have been added, including influencer, side hustle, and trequartista. Trequartista? Soccer aficionado know the trequartisa as a player who operates three quarters of the pitch from which he/she scores and/or creates opportunities for teammates to score.
OK, so here’s my question. If we can come up with a word whose meaning is known primarily to soccer enthusiasts, what’s stopping us from inventing words that will more appropriately express cultural changes in relationships and sexual identity than those currently in use? Boyfriend and girlfriend, for example. Now that half the population has experienced divorce and people are living longer, shouldn’t we honor adult relationships with words more illustrative of mature attachment than those used by kids in middle school?
There’s good news for people who identify as non-binary. They are free to eschew the usual gender-specific pronouns in favor of the newly minted neo pronouns xe/xem/xyr, ze/hir/hirs, and ey/em/eir. I can’t venture a pronunciation of these additions to our lexicon as I have yet to hear them used, but I commend the brave souls who undertook to fill the non-binary pronoun gap.
The first OED contained 400,000 entries, the most recent 600,000. Linguists say the language evolves with the culture; given these two examples, I’d say the language has some catching up to do. Personally, I lack the creative power to invent new words for boyfriend, girlfriend, and gender neutral pronouns appealing enough to find their way into general use, but surely such people exist.
Maybe we should ask a footballer.