The Unfinished Dictionary

By Robin Robertson

My pocket dictionary stops at ‘T”. It cuts out at ‘Triella’, defining it as ‘a bet placed…’ and there it ends. It has every intention of continuing, but it cannot because the following pages have gone missing. They have not been been ripped out. They are just not there. The cover is conclusively glued to that last page as if there is nothing more to be said.

It was quite some time after I bought this dictionary that I discovered its shortcomings. My hunt for word meanings/spellings had not taken me past ‘tr’. Which says something about the tail end of the alphabet: it must have been an afterthought and somewhere to file words of little interest.

I had found this dictionary in a newsagent bargain bin. As a conscientious consumer, I should return it to the shop and point out the error of its ways. But I won’t. It is a freak of publishing; a dictionary with a surprise ending. In truth, the dictionary hasn’t ended at all.

Whether it is the dictionary embedded in your computer or a fat volume on the shelf, it is unfinished. It is still being written – a work in progress – because the English language won’t sit still. Veteran words are tweeked, contorted and, some people fear, defiled. Novice words are waiting in the wings, so the dictionary is growing ever fatter, never thinner.

Admittedly, my dictionary, by going on its involuntary diet, made the point that the English language may need pruning – but not an amputation. Without ‘Tr’ through to ‘Z’, we would have to do without twaddle, unicorns and worms. There would be no wheels, vegetables or, for that matter, vocabulary.

For the dictionary is merely somewhere to stow all our words when we’re not using them. And new words are continually being coined to define a shifting world where every fresh invention, fad or fashion needs a label.

No one knows where or how a word germinates. It is born on the whims of change and without fanfare, makes its debut in casual conversation. We give it a test run, and if it fits smoothly into sentences, it is picked up and passed along. As it gathers momentum, it is aired on radio, television and YouTube, and this further weakens people’s immunity to it. But to make its mark, it must be seen as well as heard. And it starts its printed life in emails and texts, then infects websites, blogs, newspapers and magazines.

At which point, editors rise in wrath. Not knowing how it slipped by them, they defend the rights of good English: what the hell does that word mean, and can’t people spell, and isn’t anything sacred, and there’s no such word and to prove it, they look it up in the dictionary. It isn’t there.

This does not end the matter. No one owns language, not even the dictionary. As soon as people deny a word’s existence, it is too late. Controversy breeds familiarity, and it could pass for the real thing.

Once a word starts evolving, it can’t be stopped. It refuses to be expelled – or unspelled.

When it turns up in a book, the dictionary-makers are called in. They lift it out, complete with its sentence or relevant paragraph, and peel back the layers of meaning. They search through reputable news sources – soft and hard copy – for further proof of its relevance.

When all the evidence is gathered, the word makes its debut in the dictionary’s new edition, and it becomes an official word. It can now take its place in the English language. At which point, editors about-face and make it one of their own. Now it is a protected species, to be guarded with their lives, because words are their coinage – and their weapons. Despite their vigilance, this word will go out in the world and be as maltreated as any other word. It will be misspelled, misunderstood, misprinted and misread. But it will never go missing.

I am Robin Robertson, a writer who takes on the little issues and tries to make something big out of them.

You are invited to cheer on my attempts at greatness by visiting my blog: [http://kitten-on-the-keys.blogspot.com]kitten-on-the-keys.blogspot.com.

And don’t forget to visit my travel blog: http://www.tickettotravel-wandagirl21.blogspot.com

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