GLOSSARY / Going tonto about tubular and all that jazz

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I'M NOT sure whether the first swallow has been recorded yet, but I feel fairly confident that summer is here. I know this because I have spotted the first 'Slang words in new dictionary' article, in the Sunday Times this week, as it happens.

Stories such as this have become a journalistic perennial in recent years, an oblique testament to the extraordinary commercial growth of the dictionary market (sales have doubled in the past 10 years) and a recognition of the fun

to be had when street slang collides with the formal structures of academic selection (it was the presence of 'dweeb' and 'scuzz' in the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary that tickled the fancy of the Sunday Times).

But spare a thought for the lexicographer when you read such pieces. The implication that any new dictionary provides a snapshot of the times in which it is compiled is right; the implication that new entries provide the best evidence for social change is wrong; and the assumption that the lexicographer's chief activity is trapping new specimens is even wider of the mark.

The figures reveal it, if nothing else. About 105 editor years went into the New Shorter to be published later this year. This dictionary contains about 4,000 new words. If working out definitions for 'tubular' and 'gonzo' was the only thing its editors were up to, they would be working at a rate of one definition every six-and-a-half days. The Oxford University Press is a business, not a refuge for distressed academics.

In any case, concentrating on new entries to the language in the hope that they give you a picture of your society is like taking a satellite picture of cloud1 patterns and publishing it as a map2 of the Earth. The solid verities of language move at the pace of continental drift, whereas the language of fashion and adolescents scuds along, as vaporous as cumulo-nimbus.

The analogy won't quite hold, because one of the difficulties of the lexicographer's life is that a cloud can suddenly turn into a coastline. OED folklore has it that 'appendicitis' didn't make it into the first dictionary on the grounds that it was simply too technical and rarefied, a word that was unlikely ever to be used outside an operating theatre.

Then the King succumbed and the term was on every front page (not to mention the lips of social climbers with abdominal twinges).

Linguistic reactionaries, aghast at the appearance of verbal yobbos such as 'mega' and 'tonto' in the New Shorter, would equally do well to remember that in 1933, when the last major edition of the dictionary was published, there were cries of indignation at the bold inclusion of the word 'jazz', a mayfly term that forgot to die.

So lexicographers have to guess well about the durability of recent admissions. But when you talk to them, you get the impression that new inclusions, far from being at the heart of a dictionary, are more like hundreds-and-thousands sprinkled over the text, a glitter3 to attract the casual bookshop browser and supply hand-holds for the jobbing reviewer. The real work lies elsewhere, in what Samuel Johnson would have recognised as 'humble drudgery'.

The truth is that words change rather more slowly than their definitions. Lesley Brown, editor-in-chief of the New Shorter, offers 'floorcloth' as an example. 'In the present dictionary,' she points out, 'it is defined as 'a housemaid's cloth for washing floors'.'

That social assumption has been purged, as has the realistic sexism of the 1933 edition (realistic because the dictionaries have always insisted on their duty to depict the world as it is, not as some readers would like it to be). Clergy was defined as 'the body of men set apart by ordination'; the new dictionary has it as 'the body of all persons'.

Once the New Shorter is published it is expected to last about 20 years without major revisions. I'll offer good odds that when the time comes for a spring-clean, 'dweeb' and 'gonzo' will come straight out (they were, in any case, dead from the moment they hit the deck) and the real story of what has happened to us will be found in today's hopelessly dated definitions of floorcloth and clergy.

1 From the Old English clud, meaning rock or hill. The word has the same root as clod and is presumably applied figuratively to the large masses of cumulus.

2 From the Latin mappa, tablecloth, napkin.

3 From Old Norse glit, brightness. The pre-Teutonic root ghlid may be connected to the Greek word for luxury.