How Webster’s Screwed Up

How an editor who hated the word “radical,” became a radical.

David Skinner, Writing for
4-minute read
Episode #348


Ever have the feeling that words should come with warning labels? In most dictionaries, they do. In the fifth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, published in 2011, tummy is labeled “informal” and described as baby talk. It is hard to imagine a native speaker not knowing this already, but there it is, the information you need to avoid telling your boss that you are staying home because you have a boo-boo in your tummy-wummy.

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What Is Slang? 

Another term dictionaries use to mark off jokey or troublemaking words is “slang.” Merriam-Webster Online says that words labeled slang “are especially appropriate in contexts of extreme informality [an . . . are composed typically of shortened or altered forms or extravagant or facetious figures of speech.” Merriam-Webster gives the example of barb, the slang abbreviation of barbiturate, but then says that slang can sometimes be very hard to identify.

According to these dictionary-makers, “there is no satisfactory objective test for slang, especially with reference to a word out of context. No word, in fact, is invariably slang, and many standard words can be given slang applications.”

So . . .  sometimes slang words are not slang? And sometimes standard words are? Yes, according to Merriam-Webster

But if you think of slang as a way of describing language that is inappropriate to generally humorless verbal interactions (say an office conversation about the contents of a budget report), it makes sense. Slang, in other words, is NSFW, “not safe for work.”

Image: Webster 27s Dictionary advertisement, Tagishsimon at Wikimedia.

Next: Where Usage Labels Failed