You STILL Can’t Legislate Language

Oxford English Dictionary

Photo courtesy Flickr user mrpolyonymous (CC BY 2.0)

Those governments and governmental bodies are at it again. In France, you’ve often had the Académie Française trying to urge the use of French terms and the avoidance of words from other languages, to maintain the strength (and the purity?) of the French language. The Canadian province of Quebec has tried something similar, forcing the French language into greater prominence than English, say, on public signage. The Russians have also tried their hand, over the years, at preventing foreign words from entering the language and being used.

We know how well that works, especially in a globally interconnected world.

But in the same way that you can’t legislate away words you don’t want to see used, you can’t legislate words into prominence either. Take this interesting example noted by the Oxford Dictionary blog: Legislation meets lexicography: the campaign for dictionary recognition of the word ‘upstander’. It seems that the New Jersey Senate passed a resolution on June 29, 2015, “urging Merriam-Webster, Inc. and the Oxford University press to include the word upstander in their dictionaries.” This isn’t really a law, just an “urging.” But the state senate really wants this.

The word “upstander” is a good thing. It came from an anti-bullying campaign promoted by New Jersey high school students. People are urged to stand against bullying–to be “upstanders”–and of course, that’s a very good thing. The word is actually getting a lot of use, and this new and important meaning has further expanded some other meanings that already existed in prior usage of the word.

But the Oxford blog went so far as to show a graph comparing the usage (per billion words) of “upstander” compared to “cyberwarrior,” which was recently added to the Oxford Dictionary, and “upstander” lags far behind. Positive though the word is, there’s no way yet to know whether it’s going to last or will fade away by the next dictionary update.

Oxford reminded people of the only way a word is finally shown to be a significant, lasting English word: it gets used.

At the moment, upstander does not quite meet the criteria for inclusion in Oxford Dictionaries, but if usage continues and expands, it could be a strong candidate in the future. The New Jersey Senate’s resolution is a powerful indication of the word’s potential significance, but the best way to ensure that upstander is ultimately added to dictionaries is for its supporters to use it as often as possible. If the word spreads among more and more English speakers, evidence for it will continue to mount, and its fate—not just in the dictionary, but in the English language itself—will be secure.

Some words get used a lot, and the language embraces and builds on them. Other words turn out to be a fad, and the language briefly accommodates them and then they sink into that deep pool, leaving hardly a ripple for posterity. That’s how every language works, how it has always worked, and how it will work in the future. And unfortunately for the New Jersey State Senate–no legislature can dictate that process.

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