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Just Because It’s in the Dictionary Doesn’t Mean It’s a Word

Thursday, September 12th, 2013 by Chris Kent

Blame it on Miley Cyrus: Now even completely unhip people who aren’t tuned into urban culture know what “twerking” means, and this is probably not a good thing. (If you’re reading this and still don’t know about twerking, trust me, stay ignorant. Don’t look it up on Google. You’re welcome.)

Mainstream media are discussing twerking, and now everyone’s parents, and basically a lot of people over 40, are talking up the butt-shaking move in everyday conversation. Even New York Times columnist (and Pulitzer Prize winner!!) Nicholas Kristof got into the act, creating a Vine video where he feigned shock on learning what twerking is.

If this all isn’t enough to make you despair about the quality of cultural conversation in our country (grumpy alert), then here’s the nail in the coffin: Oxford Dictionaries Online, the “modern” web adjunct to the august Oxford English Dictionary (OED), just added “twerking”—as well as the words “selfie” and “squee,” among others—to its listings of current English words. Lessening this blow to civilization is the fact that the online Oxford dictionary is intended to reflect cutting-edge language, as opposed to the historical OED, whose staff relies on years of scholarly thought before adding new words. But still.

The pace of new-word creation seems to have sped up terrifyingly in recent years, thanks to the speed at which new lingo is shared online. That doesn’t mean, however, that these new words should quickly find their way into content targeted to your customers. (Not that you were likely planning to allow the word “twerking” to appear in any of your marketing collateral … right?)

Adopting fresh language can be a delicate dance—even if you’re creating consumer-focused marcom. If you lard your content with every new bit of slang that’s coming from the cool kids in your creative department, for example, you’ll look like you’re trying too hard. I’m seeing variations on “leaning in” all over the place, and in content that doesn’t have much to do with women and the work world. (And it looks lame rather than edgy—as in, congratulations, you read the cover of Sheryl Sandberg’s book.)

However, as I said in a blog post earlier this year about the French Académie Française’s failed attempts to legislate language about technology and the Internet, if you’re too stuffy and resist using words that people in your business have accepted, your marketing copy will seem out of touch.

As a way to balance out the smart, directional words from the too-trendy fluff, I’ll offer similar advice from the Académie Française blog post: Before you let your writers drop new jargon into marketing copy, type the possibly offending word into the search box of NYTimes.com or WSJ.com—or a respected industry publication. If it’s popping up in one of these trustworthy sources, it may be safe for audience consumption.

 

is a member of the Content Bureau editorial team.

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Beyond the Style Guide

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