One could argue that slang words like ‘hangry,’ ‘defriend’ and ‘adorkable’ fill crucial meaning gaps in the English language, even if they don’t appear in the dictionary. After all, who actually decides which words make it into those pages? Language historian Anne Curzan gives a charming look at the humans behind dictionaries, and the choices they make.



As you listen to the talk define the words below. You might have to google the definitions of some of them! :) 

  • defriend –
  • hangry –
  • adorkable –
  • tweet –
  • hashtag –
  • Chad –
  • WMD –
  • recombobulate –
  • multislacking –
  • Plutoed –
  • peruse –
  • decimate –

Think about it

Answer the questions below.

  • What two types of people does Ann Curzan tend to meet at parties (1:12)
  • What is the similarity between Anne Curzan and people who write dictionaries? (2:30)
  • What two words has Ann learnt from her students? What does she think about them? (3:16)
  • Summarise Ann’s observations about dictionaries. (5:13)
  • What is Ann’s favourite most creative word of all time? (7:34)
  • What have you learnt about “usage notes” and changes in meaning of words? (12:45)
  • What is Ann’s attitude to language change? (16:00)
  • What makes a word “real”?


Practice makes perfect

Fill in the blank spaces with the missing words. Use ONE word per blank space.

When people meet me ________ parties and they find out that I’m an English professor ________ specializes in language, they generally have one ________ two reactions. One set of people look frightened. (Laughter) They often say something like, “Oh, I’d ________ be careful what I say. I’m sure you’ll hear every mistake I ________.” And then they stop talking. (Laughter) And they wait for me to go away and talk ________ someone else. The other set of people, their eyes light up, and they say, “You are just the person I want to talk to.” And then they ________ me about whatever it is they think is going wrong ________ the English language.


Fill in the blank spaces with the words in bold.

make     –    keep    –    stick     –    timeless    –    question     –    resources    –    nowhere    –    faddish    –    cutting 

Now, don’t get me wrong, dictionaries are fantastic ________, but they are human and they are not ________. I’m struck as a teacher that we tell students to critically ________ every text they read, every website they visit, except dictionaries, which we tend to treat as un-authored, as if they came from ________ to give us answers about what words really mean. Here’s the thing: If you ask dictionary editors, what they’ll tell you is they’re just trying to ________ up with us as we change the language. They’re watching what we say and what we write and trying to figure out what’s going to ________ and what’s not going to stick. They have to gamble, because they want to appear ________ edge and catch the words that are going to ________ it, such as LOL, but they don’t want to appear ________ and include the words that aren’t going to make it, and I think a word that they’re watching right now is YOLO, you only live once.


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