If you're still hoarding typewriter ribbons for the day when this whole computer thing blows over and still insist on calling pasta "noodles," maybe this will convince you that times have changed. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, whose fourth edition appears this fall, complete with 10,000 entries not found in the third edition of eight years ago, the following sentence is now legitimate English: "The dot-com brainiac went postal, big-time, spewing baba gannouj all over the food court, when some butthead with no sense of netiquette stole his def domain name."
Lexicographers are to words what INS agents are to immigrants: providers of legal residency. The words may have been in the country already and may have even gained a social foothold ("day trader," "erectile dysfunction"), but they weren't here officially, so to speak. They had to watch over their shoulders for the authorities. Viewed with suspicion by traditionalists because of foreign-sounding names ("keiretsu") or unconventional customs ("air kiss"), such words risked deportation at any moment.
They can breathe easier now. In contrast to the more conservative gatekeepers at Merriam-Webster and The Oxford English Dictionary, the editors at American Heritage practice a linguistic open-door policy. Give us your "shock jocks," your "scuzzbuckets," they say. Give us your "digerati" yearning to "multitask." "People look at the dictionary as a normalizing thing," says executive editor Joseph Pickett. "It helps to give the word codified status." Not all words, thankfully. Take "stalkerazzi," which gained currency after Lady Diana's death. The term was considered for the dictionary but couldn't produce convincing credentials. Maybe it lost its place to "drug holiday" ("n. A usually brief period during which a drug that is typically taken on a daily basis, such as an antidepressant, is not taken..."), or "seaborgium," a term from physics that I have yet to look up but that I'm almost sure means blue-green slime.
Many of the fresh entries in the dictionary, like many of the nation's recent immigrants, have been admitted because they play a role in the new, high-tech economy. It's clear what we've been talking about for the past eight years: machines and money. "Usenet." "Comp time." "Bit stream." "Index fund." This is your heritage, America: a language that's forever evolving new terms for small computers ("subnotebook") and exotic lending practices ("reverse mortgage") but still has only one word for snow ("snow").
Who decides which words get in the dictionary? I do, actually. "We have a systematic program for reading publications like TIME," says Pickett, "looking for examples of new words and new uses of old words." This knowledge is unsettling. Take "pizza face," a hurtful name once hurled at me as an acne-afflicted teen. Never do I want to see this epithet enshrined in a major dictionary, and yet by using it, as I just did, I've probably guaranteed its inclusion in the next edition.
There's a lesson here. Next time you're "cybersurfing" the "Web" and spot a new word, don't say it out loud. They might hear you, brainiac.
--By Walter Kirn. With reporting by Andrea Sachs/New York