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Behind Bestie: What We Learn About Gender From New Dictionary Additions

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A dictionary update is just a list of words. It's also a testament to who English-speakers are and how we see ourselves

This week, the Oxford English Dictionary made the most exciting announcement a dictionary can: new words had been weighed, measured and added to the historical catalog.

On the surface, it might seem like just a list of new entries and sub-entries. But words that have been around long enough to get into the OED pack more context than meets the eye. And some in this addition have an obvious theme: women. You know, those people who craft language and use language in powerful ways, even when they don’t know it.

Here are three new word entries in the OED and a few things they can teach us about how culture and language collide.

bestie (n.): a person’s best friend; a very close friend.

It would be unsurprising to hear a teenage girl use this cutesy word to describe her very best friend in the whole wide world. What might be surprising is what a profound effect that young women have on the English language. “There is increasingly more recognition for the role that young women play in creating and disseminating slang,” says Katherine Martin, Oxford’s head of U.S. dictionaries. “Women are huge innovators.” Even if those innovations are ending statements like they’re, like, questions.

“It’s generally pretty well known that if you identify a sound change in progress, then young people will be leading old people,” Mark Liberman, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times for an article about the vocal fry, or creaky voice. “And women tend to be maybe half a generation ahead of males on average.” That is perhaps why a study published in December showed that more California men are just now starting to use “uptalk,” that mock-able Valley Girl style.

heroine-worship (v.): to admire (a woman one views as a heroine) intensely, excessively, or uncritically.

The first thing this entry probably reminds you of is hero worship, a term that has been in the OED since 1857. “One thing you see a lot when we’re revising is the addition of the female version of something we already have the male version of,” says Martin. It also goes both ways, like when a term such as love god is added after love goddess.

The heroine/hero pair, Martin says, is one of many in which women can fall into either category and men can only fall into one: “A hero can be a woman, whereas a heroine can’t be a man, and that’s a really common thing.” Like actor/actress, there is a male form that is viewed as fairly gender neutral and a feminized form. The interesting part comes when people decide which one to use—and why they make that decision, like a female who rejects actress because she feels actor makes her sound like a more serious thespian.

“It’s a late 21st century phenomenon to think that anything that is gender-restricted to women is somehow lesser and so, then, to oppose that. That’s where this preference for gender-neutral terminology comes from,” Martin says. “But if we dislike the feminized terms, does that mean that in some way we are buying into the concept that the feminine is less-than?” With that in mind, a woman might prefer to be worshipped as a heroine than a hero, viewing it a word through which she can proudly own being a woman.

dead white male (n.): a dead Caucasian male writer, philosopher, etc., whose pre-eminence, esp. in academic study, is challenged as disproportionate to his cultural significance, and attributed to a historical bias towards his gender and ethnic group.

The argument inherent in this dismissive term is that there has been too much focus on the things dead white men have done or said or written, especially in academia. If one felt that Herman Melville’s genius was overblown, for instance, one might refer to Moby Dick as “a big fat book by a dead white male about a big fat white sea mammal.”

“It fits into the 1970s to the present awareness of gender issues and a critique of how we use language and what we study,” says Martin; its a word that “identifies the fact that, historically, the work of white European males has been privileged over the work of other people.” The really notable detail about this entry, she says, is that the editors decided to include it. Niche ideas discussed by a few people have no place in the dictionary: “When things go in the OED, it tends to be because they’ve been around for so long that it’s now a concept we’ve actually adopted widely.”

That is to say, the very fact of its inclusion in the OED means a lot of people believe—or have at least discussed the possibility—that dead white men get too much attention. Such is the power of a dictionary update, on its face just a mostly boring list of 900 words.

(Speaking of updates and things that are not boring, one particularly female–and typically vulgar–word referring to a woman’s anatomy got a little more space in this year’s dictionary when variations of the C-word were added. Here’s a brief history of that particular term.)

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