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9 October 2019updated 26 Jul 2021 6:44am

I move commas around for a living – and I now realise there’s no such thing as linguistic decline

Mansplain, snowflake and bae: there’s a pleasure to be found in watching a living language grow and wrestle with itself.

By Pippa Bailey

When I was 17 I went on a date with a boy I had kissed at a fancy-dress party. I was dressed as a magician, he was wearing a rugby shirt; don’t ask me what the theme was. It was ill-fated from the outset. For a start, he took me, a vegetarian, to Nando’s. More serious still, his texts betrayed that he couldn’t use the correct their/they’re/there, or where/were. “It would never have worked out anyway,” I sighed on MSN afterwards, “his grammar is terrible.” (Or something to that effect; my chat history is, thankfully, long since lost.)

Such behaviour earned me the title “grammar Nazi” among friends – a problematic phrase, but suggesting that they instead employ “pedant” or “prescriptivist” would hardly have helped. It was with great glee, then, that said friends reacted when I later chose a career in sub-editing, a job that over the years I have come to explain to people as “moving around commas for a living”.

A large part of the sub-editor’s role is enforcing the rules of language – many of which I would struggle to explain (to me, grammar is nebulous and instinctive: think too hard about it and it falls apart). And so we correct split infinitives and dangling participles and sentences that end with prepositions. “Last” is not interchangeable with “past”. “Decimate” is not a synonym for “devastate”. “Added bonus” is a tautology. It’s enough to make Michael Gove proud.

When we are unsure of a usage or style, we refer to, yes, a printed dictionary. In a previous job at a newspaper, when we found an entry we disagreed with – an outdated spelling, or a word that we considered missing – we would crudely amend it in pen. (There is no such irreverence at the New Statesman.)

It was our own, very basic version of what happens year-round at the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). For the past 20 years a major revision has been under way, with definitions tweaked and new words added. Its editors must tread the tightrope between preserving the history and tradition of language, and recording its actual, experiential usage. The OED releases a list of its changes every quarter. The latest, published on 9 October, includes newcomers “omnishambles”, “xoxo” and “Jedi mind trick”, plus a revision that dates “fake news” to 1890.

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Many words are added to reflect now-common usage, and so the updates make for a kind of lexical record of the cultural moment. In June we got “bae” (a “boyfriend or girlfriend”), “gym bunny” and “twittersphere”. January 2018 was the moment for “mansplain” and “snowflake” – or, rather, a new meaning for snowflake. Later that same year, “cultural appropriation” and “impostor syndrome” were added. By contrast, there’s something reassuring about going back 15 years and seeing “artsy” and “wahoo” making their debuts.

Then there are those entries that it’s hard to believe haven’t always been there: the not-very-of-the-moment “consecrated virgin” was only added in June. And, of course, there’s the simple joy of learning new words. “Crudball” – “an unpleasant or despicable person” – was a recent addition. “Bongga”, taken from Philippine English, means “extravagant, flamboyant, impressive, stylish” (October 2018).

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For the latest update, Emma Rees, professor of literature and gender studies at the University of Chester, and author of The Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History, worked with the OED to redress words related to female sexuality. The OED’s first edition, for example, defined the clitoris as “the homologue of the male penis; present, as a rudimentary organ, in the females of many of the higher vertebrates”. (Imagine if the penis were to be described as “the homologue of the female clitoris”; it’s like something taken from the @manwhohasitall Twitter account.) The new definition – “the female genital organ located in the anterior part of the vulva, which contains numerous nerve endings and plays a major role in sexual arousal and pleasure in women” – may seem simple and obvious, but is in its own way groundbreaking.

There are those who consider amending the dictionary a threat to the Sacred English Language: see the website of the Queen’s English Society, illustrated with photographs of castles and Tudor houses; or the broadcaster John Humphrys bemoaning, “Our language is showing signs of obesity, which is the consequence of feeding on junk words.” Teenage me would have been among them, but as I have grown further from that girl in a magician’s hat, I have come to recognise that there is no such thing as linguistic decline, only change.

There may remain a part of me that recoils at the addition to the dictionary of slang such as “bae”, but it coexists with another part that sees how powerful it is for those in the ivory towers of the OED to tell young people that their voices matter and are worthy of preserving. Unwavering pedantry is not a love of language, but something uglier: a desire always to be right and to put others down. It is superior and elitist; language not as a means of communication but of status.

It’s also just not much fun. As Stephen Fry once wrote, “Do [pedants] bubble and froth and slobber and cream with joy at language? Do they ever let the tripping of the tips of their tongues against the tops of their teeth transport them to giddy euphoric bliss? Do they ever yoke impossible words together for the sound-sex of it?” There’s far more pleasure to be found in letting go (just a little – I want to keep my job, after all); in standing back and watching a living language grow and wrestle with itself. I’m not sure that such a process can ever wholly be captured and catalogued, but the OED’s attempt is a beautiful thing.

As for my date, the grammar perhaps I could now get past, but Nando’s? Unforgivable. 

Pippa Bailey is deputy production editor of the New Statesman

This article appears in the 09 Oct 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The fantasy of global Britain