Take the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year for 2013 “selfie” for instance. The first use of this word was in an Australian Internet forum. Selfie refers to taking a photograph of oneself using a smart phone, and is just a shortened form of “self portrait”. This word seemed to gain popularity quickly, mainly due to the widespread use of smart phones; the word has been in use for some time and is likely to remain so, which is why it is now a dictionary entry.
Words are made up all the time by different groups of people, but only if they are used widely over a period of time will dictionary makers put them in their reference works.
Social media has offered us new meanings for a whole host of common words such as “friend” (and “unfriend”) as in Facebook; “like” is now commonly used as a noun, as in “I got 2 likes today.” We post “statuses” on Facebook to tell all sorts of stories, and “scroll” no longer refers to a long sheet of parchment attached to a rounded length of wood that could be rolled up, but to how we move “pages” on our computer screens up and down!
These words often relate to the original use of the words but have been extended to fit the electronic age. Gradually, some words become popular while some fade from the language. People used to use “square” to describe somebody who wasn’t being fashionable while using “groovy” to say that a person was truly part of the modern scene. Nowadays, “cool” means the same as “groovy” and has nothing to do with temperature!
As the world becomes evermore globalised, foreign words are introduced into modern usage. This is especially the case with food. We all know such expressions and words as “a la carte”, “pizza”, “sushi” and “kimchi”. Even names become popular: “big mac” (from McDonalds), “hoover” (from the Hoover vacuum cleaner). Some of these words enter the modern dictionaries; some do not.
It’s exciting to see how language changes and develops. A fun task is to look at how certain words were first used and how their meanings have changed over time – you’ll be in for some surprises.