On April 5 the NYT editorialized about new entries in the OED:

OMG !!!!!  OED  ♥  LOL !!!!!

It’s wonderful to experience the ongoing corruption and evolution of the English language. Last month, OMG and LOL were inducted into the Oxford English Dictionary, along with the heart symbol — the first time a meaning enters our most exalted linguistic inventory via the T-shirt and bumper sticker.

Several things to be dismayed about here, but I’ll move quickly on to OMG and its history.

Points of dismay: the assumption that change in language is either corruption (change for the worse) or evolution (which I believe the editorial writer intended to refer to change for the better, that is, improvement); the idea that entering the OED is a kind of validation of an expression; and of course the focus on the lexicon as the central aspect of a language (the view that a language is just a big bag of words, as we say, mockingly, on Language Log).

Meanwhile, Kenyon Wallace in The Star provided better coverage of the story on March 25, here, under the header:

Why ‘OMG’ and ‘muffin top’ are now in the Oxford dictionary

basing the story on an interview with Katherine Martin, the OED’s senior editor for new words. (Hat tip to Chris Ambidge.) On OMG:

Martin says a lot of her time is spent combing through old magazines and newspapers looking for the first time a word was used.

An unexpected find was the first example of the use of OMG, found in a letter written to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1917.

“That was a surprise, but an isolated use of the term,” Martin said. “It didn’t really take off until people were using it in text messages and, from there, the spoken language.”

Nice point there. The first occurrence of an expression might turn out to be a one-off. The expression might have been independently innovated on many occasions. But the crucial moment for language history is when it “takes off” and spreads. So the 1917 use of OMG is an entertaining find, but not a matter of much significance. For practical purposes, the abbreviated expression is in fact a recent innovation.

2 Responses to “OMG”

  1. ShadowFox Says:

    Point taken: personal letters are rarely vectors in spreading The Word.

  2. The Ridger Says:

    “A big bag of words”: I attended a presentation a couple of years ago where the presenter had had printed up for handouts laminated posters to take back and put up, presumably to remind ourselves that Teaching Grammar Is Bad. The posters said “You can’t much with grammar, but you can say almost anything with words.”

    It didn’t seem to do much good to point out that a random string of words doesn’t actually convey much solid information – man bite dog, for instance, doesn’t tell you anything about which man or dog, or who did the biting, or when, or even if.

    Words really do seem to come in for the lion’s share of attention.

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