Tom Slater thinks it’s time we had a quiet word with the good folks who produce the Oxford Dictionaries:
What this year’s Word of the Year — indeed, the mere existence of this nine-year-old award — reveals is something equally as toxic: the cult of relativism that is laying siege to modern culture.
In recent years, a sentiment has emerged that the concept of ‘proper’ English as something precious which needs to be upheld and protected is painfully old hat, if not vaguely authoritarian. Those who speak out about the youth’s poor grasp of grammar or increasing ineloquence are deemed snobby, elitist and unduly judgemental. Even as universities continue to complain about undergraduates’ increasingly feeble grasp of the English language, many academics have said we should just give up. ‘Either we go on beating ourselves and our students up over this problem or we simply give everyone a break’, argued one such professor.
The reluctance to defend the English language against the whims of slang and contemporary standards of literacy is always garbed as a freewheeling acceptance that language is always changing, and the idea that enforcing standards only replicates a kind of linguistic class divide: placing well-spoken aristocrats on one side and slang-spouting serfs on the other. But in truth, this relativism about English belies a crisis of judgement in an elite riddled with class guilt. As Brendan O’Neill has pointed out previously on spiked, the outcome of all of this is that children, especially the poorest, are prohibited from mastering a language in its full richness, the mechanism by which they can best engage with society and, more importantly, change it.
Oxford Dictionaries’ celebration of a glorified slang word, that few people had even heard of a year ago, represents another strange development in this trend. Over the course of its nine-year run, the Word of the Year award itself has become little more than an exercise in dictionary compilers ingratiating themselves with the youth. The award seems to have begun life in the form of Susie Dent’s 2004 book, Larpers and Shroomers: The Language Report. Published by Oxford University Press, it offered a potted history of buzzwords, some of which had faded from use while others had established themselves in the everyday lexicon.