In the first week of my Shakespeare Off the Page class in the BLS program, we discuss the development of the English language during Shakespeare’s era. English, which was developing and expanding as colloquial language, was considered “lowbrow” by many 16th century traditional academics. Shakespeare’s works, written in English of course, did much to legitimize the English language in spite of resistance from these traditionalists. Shakespeare also coined many new words and phrases, contributing to a rapid expansion of English vocabulary that occurred during his lifetime. One of my students gave the example of “eyeball,” a word that hadn’t been written in English until Shakespeare included it in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Every semester, I ask my students to consider the coinage of new words today. Students often cite technological advances as the source for new words: after all, who knew what a “blog” was twenty years ago?
This week’s discussion reminded me of a story that surfaced last year about the New York Times. Philip Corbett, the standards editor at the New York Times, issued a memo to staff writers that the word “tweet” should not appear in the newspaper if describing a posting on Twitter. Corbett advised the word “tweet” should appear only if referring to the sound a bird makes. It was widely reported that Corbett “banned” the word but “strongly discouraged” is probably a more accurate assessment of Corbett’s memo. Regardless of the phrasing, Corbett was widely criticized for the move–Here is Corbett’s response to the criticism he received.
So here’s a major publisher–among the world’s most important authorities on trends and issues with American English–deliberately resisting the coinage and use of a new word. I did a quick online search and found two dictionaries disagreeing with each other. Here’s Webster, which does not provide a Twitter-based definition for “tweet.”
Noun 1. tweet – week chirping sound as of a small bird [sic]
Verb 1. tweet –make a weak, chirping sound; “the small bird was tweeting in the tree” Synonyms: twirp
Verb 2. tweet – squeeze tightly between the fingers; “He pinched her behind”; “She squeezed the bottle” Synonyms: nip, pinch, twinge, twitch, squeeze
Here’s Dictionary.com, complete with a reference to Twitter:
tweet – noun
1. a weak chirping sound, as of a young or small bird.
2. Digital Technology . a very short message posted on the Twitter Web site: the message may include text, keywords, mentions of specific users, links to Web sites, and links to images or videos on a Web site.
Corbett explains that if “tweet” ever becomes as common as “e-mail,” it will warrant reconsideration as a legitimate word. But don’t we look to the New York Times, dictionaries, and other publications to confirm a word’s legitimacy and proper use? If they won’t use the word in print, can it ever be legitimized? Do publishers have an obligation to embrace and define new words? Do they think of themselves as defenders of the English language? What can be gained from refusing “tweet” and other new words admission into our vocabulary?