Among all the cultural riches given us by the Internet, we don't sufficiently appreciate the broadening education of the online dictionary. For one thing, it hugely improves on the printed dictionary: The hardback version cost so much that many schools and homes made do for decades with books that aged till they grew obsolete.
More important, online dictionaries constantly remind us that a word is essentially fickle, the most unstable of humanity's inventions. Generations, using thick books of words, were raised in the belief that a word and its meaning were hard and fast, unchangeable. In fact, reality steadily grinds away at words, changing meanings and values. This is a crucial truth of language, easily forgotten.
The people who run the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) recognize that a word lives a volatile, unpredictable life. They make major revisions to their content four times a year, and with good reason.
"Technology," for instance, once meant the description of mechanical processes. I once knew a scholarly editor who didn't like it to mean anything else. Today it means all of applied science, with everything that conveys for the world.
Changing ideas and sensibilities can radically alter the overtones of a word. "Savages" once meant preliterate tribes but its use as a pejorative turned it into a forbidden insult. It was once clever to apply the word "iconic" to a rock star or a comic strip, but overuse took the life from that word, reducing it to a cliché like "tipping point" or "the usual suspects," terms from which the tread has worn off. They can no longer get a purchase on the imagination; they don't evoke any sense of reality. They are reduced to empty sequences of letters.
Recently the OED updated its entry on the word "go." The new version details 603 uses of the word, not a surprising number when you realize that the shortest words often require the most explanation. (The item defining the verb "to be" lists over 2,000 forms and inflections.)
The new article on "go" represents over a year's work by several OED editors. So "you go, girl!" is there now, and so is "getting a party going," accurately defined. The editors decided that "to go out" is used in 32 ways. One might be going out romantically with someone but also tides, fires, lights and TV programs go out. Not to mention "gone to a better place" or "I felt myself go" or "the brakes went."
In a long life one acquires words, hears them used from time to time, then notices them missing. One of my colleagues on the Globe and Mail sports pages (where I began my working life in 1950) often used the term "Ameche" to mean telephone, as in "Would somebody please answer the Ameche?" or "The Ameche rang off the hook."
That was for a time the language's odd little tribute to Don Ameche (1908-1993), star of "The Story of Alexander Graham Bell," a 1939 movie. When movie and star were finally forgotten, so was the word.
In ancient times the fanciest word that sports writers could use was "gonfalon," to mean "pennant," as in "National League gonfalon." It came from Italian, Spanish and Portuguese words for banners used by ecclesiastical processions and celebrations of various Italian republics. Both Machiavelli and Milton used it, but baroque sports writing has pretty well died out. Unfortunately, I've found only one "gonfalon" appearing on a sports page in the last 10 years, and in that case the writer (for the New York Times) felt he had to explain it.
Recently I saw the word "kibosh" in a news story and remarked on its appearance. I felt excited, like a birder who glimpses a rare specimen in the wild.
Once "kibosh" was in everyday language. It meant disposing of something or finishing it off. A parent might say, "If you keep forgetting your chores, young man, that will put the kibosh on your allowance." How that meaning originated remains unknown but the term itself is said to have originated in Yiddish. Charles Dickens used it in Sketches by Boz in 1836.
I couldn't remember reading or hearing it in decades but I've since learned that it's still alive in journalism. Last winter Stephen Harper put the kibosh on the possibility of a spring election, according to one report. Germany and the rest of the European Union put the kibosh on a Greek default on its private debt.
Barack Obama may finally put the kibosh on construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.
The word "kibosh" made its most spectacular public appearance in a memorable Seinfeld episode of 1992. A character known as Crazy Joe Divola grows angry with Jerry Seinfeld, and terrifies him by leaving a blizzard of kiboshes on a telephone message. "I know you badmouthed me to the execs at NBC, put the kibosh on my deal," Crazy Joe says. "Now I'm gonna put the kibosh on you. You know I've kiboshed before, and I will kibosh again." You'd think that would have done for "kibosh" what Seinfeld did for "regift" and "master of your domain," but it never caught on.
Along with their many advantages, revisable dictionaries have a downside: They sometimes inform us of newish words we might be happier not knowing about. Last week the Oxford English Dictionary's daily bulletin (to which I subscribe) announced "Your word for today is: looky-loo."
A "looky-loo" (it should be banned on grounds of cuteness alone) means someone who views something for sale but doesn't intend to buy. Oxford cites only one literary reference, a 2005 mystery novel, Done Gone Wrong, by Cathy Pickens, who also wrote Hush My Mouth and Hog Wild: "Even out here, the accident had attracted looky-loos, including one heavy-set guy ... dragging on a cigarette and watching someone at work below the embankment."
No one admires industrious lexicographers more than I, but there are times when even the OED's passion for inclusiveness goes too far.