On the Fashion of Language

Last week, I wrote the word “replayability” in a draft, and I got that red squiggly line indicating a spelling error or undefined word.  heard, read, and used “replayability” over the years with a clear understanding of what it meant from context, so I did what I always do when I encounter a red-squiggly word I swear I’m spelling correctly: ask Rabbi Google.

If you search for “replayability” on Google, the first result is a gem:

replayability ranter

If you want to read a sad rant from someone who misunderstands the fundamental nature of living languages and the tradition of English to appropriate and invent words, I guess you can go there. (But really, it’s not worth your time, unless you enjoy watching someone basically foaming at the mouth with their personal manifesto.)

But this faux-elitism brings to mind something I talk about all the time when I talk about the craft of writing and editing: language is a fashion. It’s not a dictation from on-high, though haters would tell you otherwise.

One of the points this dude brings up is that the word isn’t in Merriam-Webster. Of course it isn’t there. It doesn’t take a lot to understand why dictionaries are slow to adopt new words—and though Oxford English Dictionary is a common exception to this, it’s still careful. Words get invented all the time, as slang in a culture, as jargon in a field, as an artifact of time an happenstance, and so on. Dictionaries are waiting to see if a word displays lasting power over the broader culture. Words are rarely removed from dictionaries (if ever), so they aren’t added casually.

Want to add a word to M-W? That’ll take a while. I wouldn’t be surprised if “replayability” is in the OE (though I don’t have a subscription to check), but I also wouldn’t be surprised if it isn’t. The laughable idea that a word isn’t real because it’s not in the dictionary misses the point that dictionaries are snapshots of culture, not arbiters of it.

(It’s also pretty goddamn racist and classist to spout that view, but I’m not going to open that can of worms more than I just have.)

Five other words not in Merriam-Webster that we culturally understand:

  • daddy-o (old slang now used for period pieces)
  • noob (Internet slang)
  • twerk (new slang)
  • feel (new noun form of “feelings”, i.e. “all my feels”)
  • hatefuck (not sure how you’d categorize that)

That’s to say nothing of jargon that’s widely understood in an vast industry. There’s a reason that, for example, there are separate medical dictionaries, glossaries of computer terms, and similar indexes for anything relating to the military.

But for me, the biggest thing to understand about English is that it’s the result of a bunch of fuckers that just threw some shit out there that stuck. William Shakespeare invested a fuckton of words. (Also: “fuckton” is a word we all understand.) And Noah Webster helped forge a national identity by making Americans spell words differently.

So if a word’s in common use—whatever the using culture considers “common use”—it’s a word at that moment. Words come into fashion. Words go out of fashion. Sometimes words come back into fashion. And sometimes words transcend their original context and get thrown into a wider audience.

If you want to see a living overexposure of language, check out Urban Dictionary (which does have an entry for replayability). Is it reliable? Nope. It’s not curated at all, but then that’s more or less the point: English isn’t a strongly curated language. There’s no Académie française for the whole of English. That’s not how we roll. (Good luck finding that usage of “roll” in M-W.)

To bring us back to the hater at the top of the post, people like those assume that language they learned in school is a lasting, static snapshot of culture that’s persisted long before them. The whole solipsistic fallacy of “I learn it like this, so it’s always been like this” permeates that line of thinking. Trust me, you’re using words you don’t even think are new or jargon that people a generation or two removed from you think is stupid or nonsensical.

What does this mean for you as a writer and editor? Well, when you’re using an uncommon word that isn’t in “the dictionary,” you have to determine if it’s common usage enough to be understood by your audience. That English is this plastic does make our jobs as writers and editors hard, but that’s how the damn job goes. Frankly, you have to determine that for every word. If you use “larboard” or “quinsy” casually—words in Merriam-Webster—do your readers know what you mean? Which usage of “peruse” do you think your readers will go with with you write that word, the classic “reed deeply” meaning or the vogue “skim over” one? All language is fashion, and the words you use will connect to people in their various contexts.

This also means don’t be a language bigot. You’ll just look like some old, hateful fuck as the world moves on regardless[1] of your opinion.

– Ryan

[1] Point of note: I hate “irregardless,” but it’s part of our culture at this point, so it’s a damn word I have to accept other use.