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What has happened to English's BFF, the OED?

By Edited Aug 30, 2016 0 0

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has recently announced that BFF and other texting abbreviations are words! Right there in the same dictionary as floccinaucinihilipilification and antidisestablishmentarianism! What's happening to the gatekeepers of the English language? Are we witnessing the collapse of civilization?

Civilization may or may not be collapsing, but if it does, texting talk won't be the cause. We all know why it was a necessary development. If there is anyone even less attracted to texting than I am, let me explain. The alphabet has 26 letters, and to send a text message with a phone, only the number pad is available. Eons ago, technologically speaking, Ma Bell decreed that letters (except for Q and Z) would be represented by the numbers 2-9; 24 letters expressed by 8 keys. It worked fine for the old telephone exchanges and became irrelevant with the development of modern phone numbers.

Then texting came along. The missing letters were added to the 7 and 9 keys. Press a key once to get the first letter on it, twice for the second, and so on. If you actually want the number, press the key 4 times, 5 if you want 7 or 9. No wonder initialisms like FYI, CYA, etc. came in so handy. There weren't enough of those in common use, so new ones soon started coming out of the woodwork. Soon enough, they started to break free from texting and leached into ordinary written language, or even spoken language. @TEOTD, expressions like LOL, ROTFL, RTM, might be necessary for texting, but not elsewhere. Now they're in the OED.

Actually, they just continue a trend toward using initialisms that started at least as long ago as the FDR administration. He gave us the WPA and the CCC. The United Nations, among others, has given us pronounceable ones like UNESCO and UNICEF (in other words, acronyms, which probably got dictionary entries without causing a stir).

I regret the use of texting abbreviations in common writing. They constitute a sort of jargon, which keeps outsiders from understanding—perhaps intentionally. Hardly anything bores people more quickly than a speech or bit of writing riddled with acronyms and insider buzz-words. But I don't see any problem with having them in the OED and other dictionaries. Some of them might be permanently useful and so become intelligible to all readers. The fun will eventually go out of inventing more.

And that's where the OED is now performing the same service it has from the beginning, as a record of the development of the English language. It has also preserved a record of people having fun with language. For those whose reaction to BFF is floccinaucinihilipilification (the acts of estimating as worthless—I've always wanted to use that word in a sentence), consider this: as the OED was first developing, people seemed to enjoy trying to make up long words and getting them published in hope of coining the longest word in the OED.

In my youth, some of us loved to say antidisestablishmentarianism, apparently the longest word whose pronunciation is fairly easy to figure out, but floccinaucinihilipilification won that contest. Much longer words exist, but they're all chemical names or other technical vocabulary with no place in a general reference work.

Now think of all the texting abbreviations you know. A few, like FYI (for your information) are shortcuts to expressions that lots of people might want to write frequently. Maybe 2G2BT (too good to be true) belongs in that category. But how many people really need to write or say "best friends forever" or "rolling on the floor laughing" or "that's much more information than I need" (BFF, ROTFL, TMMITIN) often enough to need a shortcut?

Surely many people in a playful mood made up abbreviations in hopes that the receivers would have trouble figuring out for themselves what they meant. Having someone have to break down and ask must have given such people great and perverse pleasure. Instead of contests to make up the longest words and get them published, the game became to make up the most obscure texting abbreviations and getting them to go viral.

The editors at Oxford University Press took notice, and so now we have texting initialisms in OED. Generations after this new game is supplanted by something else, anyone who likes to peruse the OED instead of just looking something up will understand how much fun it was.




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