When Dictionaries Surrender

Welcome to Amazing Words Wednesday, the day we enter the labyrinth of language together and see what we can find.

A few weeks ago, author Rhonda Hopkins made me aware that some dictionaries have now accepted a new definition of literally. Rather than continuing to correct wrong usage of the word, they have accepted that literally can now be defined as symbolically.

I wasn’t sure whether to shrug with acquiescence, smack my head against a nearby wall, or write letters to all of the dictionary editors to remind them of their job. *sigh* Yet, this is hardly the first time that language has evolved based not so much on linguistic need or changing societal norms, but rather improper usage of a word.

So let’s take look at a few other examples of when dictionaries surrender.

Ain’t. I grew up hearing teachers respond to this term with “Ain’t ain’t in the dictionary.” And it wasn’t. Not for a long time. Even when included in unabridged dictionaries, it was noted as slang.

However, in 1993 Merriam-Webster took the leap and listed ain’t as a word without any distinction of colloquial usage. Ain’t had finally arrived as an accepted alternative for isn’t. Schoolchildren everywhere felt vindicated, and English teachers felt betrayed.

Ginormous. You thought it was just slang, right? In 2007, Merriam-Webster added ginormous to their dictionary with the definition of “extremely large.” But let’s not all pile on poor Webster. The word now appears in the Random House Dictionary and the gold-standard Oxford English Dictionary as well.

Ginormous is obviously a combination of “gigantic” and “enormous”–which begs the question of why we even need another word to say these things. Especially when you also have “huge,” “massive,” “mammoth,” “jumbo,” and more. Yet dictionaries threw their hands up and stopped trying to get trendy teens to stick to words already available to convey, “Dang, this is big!” Of course, as soon as ginormous hit the dictionary, the word likely lost some of its public appeal.

Irregardless. Merriam-Webster lists irregardless as meaning “regardless.” Go figure. In defense of the word’s inclusion in their dictionary, they state:

The most frequently repeated remark about it is that “there is no such word.” There is such a word, however. It is still used primarily in speech, although it can be found from time to time in edited prose. Its reputation has not risen over the years, and it is still a long way from general acceptance. 

“Ya think?” The word likely emerged as a confused joining of the words “irrespective” and “regardless,” which are synonyms. Grammar folks–yeah, like me–continue to make the case that this word is simply poor usage. The better term is–no surprise–regardless.

Unique. Of course, the word unique has been in the dictionary for a very long time. The classic definition is “one of a kind.” A singular something that has no equal or comparison. For instance, the Sphinx pyramid in Egypt is unique; a snowflake’s pattern is unique; that party you attended in college that you hope there’s no photographic evidence of, yes, that was unique as well.

However, people started saying things like “That’s especially unique” and “Check out this really unique thing.” If something is especially so, then other things must be so as well–you know, to require the adverb qualifier. Anyway, people started discussing degrees of uniqueness…which meant that the word itself began to be misunderstood. This misuse led to people believing that unique meant special or uncommon.

Sure enough, you can find that definition now in dictionaries. Random House includes the definition “not typical; unusual.” I think that’s a shame, because we already have words like “special,” “unusual,” “uncommon,” “rare,” etc. However, unique was, well, unique in being a perfect synonym for the longer and clunkier “one of a kind.”

What other examples do you know for when dictionaries surrender? What words have joined the dictionary due to misuse or pure invention? What do you think about these changes, including the recent shift for “literally”?

26 thoughts on “When Dictionaries Surrender

  1. I never knew that “ain’t” was added to the dictionary as a valid word. Are you serious? I know that “urban” dictionaries have all kids of slang words and words accepted in daily use, but they don’t make it into the formal dictionaries. Wow.

  2. Irregardless. Irregardless is now a word. What??!!?? What happened to it just being regardless. I don’t care if it is a word, it’s still one of my biggest pet peeves.

    And how can literally mean symbolically? How? That’s two different meanings. Ugh.

    I love this post.

  3. I can’t believe that “ain’t” is accepted. I remember as a kid, my friends would argue that it was in the dictionary. But I’d argue back that it was there as slang. I don’t accept slang, and I still don’t accept “ain’t.”

    1. Some slang words appear in dictionaries with the caveat that they are slang, but at some point, with wide usage, even that designation can be removed. *sigh*

      Thanks for commenting, Shea!

  4. I was always under the impression that unique meant very special/different/unusual. Oh well. Learned something new – again. Thanks.

  5. Kill. Me. Now. “Irregardless” should never be a word. EVER. Ginormous is a blended word, so it doesn’t bother me. You would be surprised by all the blended words that we use every day that used to not be words. I may have to do a post on that, now that I think about it. 😀

    So, it makes me feel better that my browser doesn’t recognize that non-word and put a squiggly red line under it. LOL. My red line says don’t use “irregardless.”

    (I think I need more sleep this week.)

    1. Of course irregardless should not be a word! Every time I think about that, I have to stop and do a facepalm. LOL. It is a good news that our online spell checks are rebelling, Diana!

  6. It’s sick and wrong. No wait – it’s srong. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

    Ain’t, ain’t a word. It’s a redneck excuse for not learning to use proper grammar or to speak correctly. What next? Irregardless, are we going to add the unique expression, “rednecognize” just ‘cuz cute ‘lil Honey Boo Boo uses it all the time? I rest my case. She’s a redneck who isn’t being properly schooled. We don’t change our dictionaries to justify illiteratacy. Sick and wrong.

    Okay, I’m getting off my soapbox now.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

  7. Literally? They literally changed the definition of literally?? I fuss at my daughter ALL. THE. TIME. about her improper use of the word (and also “seriously”). I’m seriously not going to tell her… 🙂

  8. You know what’s going to happen now, don’t you? Henceforth, every time that we, out of the goodness of our hearts, try to correct others’ poor grammar they’re just going to point at the dictionary and claim it’s not a mistake. (On the other hand, people who don’t pay attention to grammar usually also don’t use dictionaries, so maybe we still have a chance…)

  9. Okay, the only thing I can think about after seeing the word, literally, is Rob Lowe’s character on Parks and Rec (if you haven’t seen the show, he uses literally, um, liberally). Anyway, I literally can’t think of anything else, once Rob Lowe is on my mind. 🙂

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