When dictionaries add trendy words like "twerk," they're prioritizing the fleeting language habits of the young, says Geoff Nunberg. And our fascination with novel words tends to eclipse subtle changes in the meanings of old ones -- "which are often more consequential."
Lexicographers know they're in the hot seat as they confront the changing use of the word "marriage." Linguist Geoff Nunberg says the key to getting the new definition right is to crisply describe everything that's in the category and nothing that isn't.
Well, no, we're not going to tell you. No, no, no. Not even if you ask politely. But here's a hint: It's a "primordial one-word response" that perfectly encapsulates the aura -- no, make that the prevailing zeitgeist -- of 2010.
It's been a busy couple of years for the law, from the controversy over gay marriage to nominations to the Supreme Court. From a linguist's point of view, dictionaries are crucial in the world of jurisprudence.
Anne Soukhanov is the Executive Editor of the new "American Heritage Dictionary of English Language, Third Edition." She's been a lexicographer and editor of reference books for over 20 years. She joins Fresh Air to talk about what new words say about changing culture.