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Sunday, March 23, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Words not minced at Smithsonian boot camp

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — In a spartanly furnished classroom three stories below the National Mall, conspirators are hard at work.

They're conjuring up words. They'd like nothing better than to invent them, then sit back and listen to the rest of us use them.

They want this so much that each has given up five hours of a Saturday and paid upward of $120 to hear Erin McKean, the 31-year-old senior editor for Oxford University Press' American English dictionaries, talk about the life and death of language. She discusses the birth of "bling-bling," "soccer moms" and "reality TV," just a few of the phrases that have slipped into American vernacular in recent years.

She talks about staying power and burnout — take "cyberspace," for example, a word coined by author William Gibson in 1984 and now securely entrenched, compared with "information superhighway," which also has its place in the dictionary but seems to be slipping into obsolescence.

"The dictionary is not a dictator, it's a mirror of what people do," she tells the 27 academics, bureaucrats, lawyers, retirees and writers who've signed on as cadets in this Smithsonian-sponsored "Word-Lover's Boot Camp." The best dictionary, McKean continues, is merely a record of the written expressions of a culture and language. Hence Oxford's listing of "hopefully," Homer Simpson's "D'oh!" and the use of "fellowship" as a verb (a usage dating from at least 1374, more than 600 years before cinema-goers fellowshipped in watching "The Lord of the Rings").

And at risk of scrambling the sensibilities of Scrabble devotees, McKean gets even more subversive: "You don't have to be in the dictionary to be a word (any more than) you don't have to be a purebred to be a dog." It's a particularly antithetical notion coming from one whose employer ambitiously aspires to include every English word in general usage since 1700 (plus any leftovers among the complete works of Shakespeare, Milton and the King James Bible).

The 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary is considered the most comprehensive reference for the English language. The company's two-volume Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (SOED), released last fall, saw fit to include 3,500 new words by using its "5 by 5 by 5" rule: five examples in five printed sources over five years.

By McKean's standards, the cadets' new constructions — including "catagram" (a word without an anagram) and "homofication" (adoption of a gay lifestyle by someone who has recently come out of the closet) — share the legitimacy of, say, an old word that seems to have renewed relevance, such as "woofits" (a gloomy mood, from the World War I era). Not yet in the dictionary but on Oxford's shortlist is "9/11," not soon to be forgotten, and "reality TV," which might best be.

Sometimes meaning is decided before orthography; we're still figuring out whether the word for online correspondence should be rendered as "E-mail," "e-mail" or "email."

Philosophical differences are bound to arise where authoritarianism abuts artistry.

The dynamics in the room aren't anywhere near the scale of the war over words in, say, Bhutan, where the Dzongkha Development Commission of the Royal Government is finalizing a new grammar, and devising an entire new dictionary, in hopes of defending the Himalayan country's traditional language from outside influences.

The real key to a language's survival is finding a word with juice. When it comes to new words, as McKean says, "there are more and more words all the time. ... We're not slowing down at all, which I think is a great thing."

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