The OED has put ♥ into the dictionary, along with such internet terms as OMG. At least that's what the headlines are screaming, and commentators world-wide have been praising or damning the dictionary editors' decision to go both graphic and digital.

Here's what the New York Times said in an editorial about the OED's latest update:

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. 

Only the Times, the newspaper of record, got the story wrong. Lexicographers at the OED, the dictionary of record, didn't chant "Imago verbiosà!" and turn the kitschy ♥ symbol into a word. What they did was update the definition of the verb to heart to reflect a new sense referring to "the symbol of a heart to denote the verb 'love.'" 

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The OED updates its definition of heart as a transitive verb by adding references to the heart logo, which originally signaled "love," and later included the more literal "heart" as well. What's missing from this definition is the idea that reading ♥ as "heart" instead of "love" adds a touch of irony to the logo.

An earlier OED update did the same thing for smiley face without drawing so much publicity. There, too, it wasn't the graphic ☺ that made it into the dictionary, but the definition of the phrase smiley face written out in words.

 

Although digital dictionaries can take advantage of graphics in ways that print dictionaries cannot, the online OED includes no illustrations in its definitions of heart or smiley face.

It's not that dictionaries don't include graphics, or that they don't define them. The eighteenth-century lexicographer Nathan Bailey was one of the first to use wood cuts to illustrate meanings. And Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary contains an appendix with definitions of many common, scientific, and mathematical symbols.

Above: Speaking of spells, an illustration and definition of abracadabra, from Nathan Bailey's Dictionarium Britannicum (1736). Below: Merriam-Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed., 2004) defines a variety of graphic symbols in an appendix, including the symbols for poison, radiation, peace, and recycling. The dictionary does not define the heart or the smiley face, both of which were in wide use at the time.

The OED's inclusion of OMG has also attracted attention from critics lamenting, not the destructive force of rebus-writing like I ♥ NY, but the shortcuts of chat and text, but here too commentators like the Times editor would do well to check their facts.

It's true that the Internet is the source of many new words and phrases: there's blog, email, and internet itself. And of course there's LOL, defined by the OED as "originally and chiefly in the language of electronic communications: 'ha ha!'" though the form may occur more often as an ironic rather than a literal comment. But although OMG owes much of its success to the digital revolution, the OED traces the expression back to 1917, a time when telegraphs, telephones and snail mail formed the web that connected us all together.

That first use of OMG is a jocular reading of a new British gong or honor (or honour): OMG, for "Oh! My God!" Compare this with CMG, the abbreviation for a Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George, which is jokingly read as, "call me God," along with the higher degrees of that order, KCMG, "kindly call me God" and GCMG, "God calls me God." We're not above turning serious initialisms into jokes on this side of the pond as well: Ph.D. becomes "post-hole digger" or worse yet, "piled higher and deeper."

The point is that initialisms, of which OMG and LOL are only two examples, are common features of English, and that initialisms were popular long before the internet. As such, it's both natural for dictionaries to record them, and instructive to trace their earliest occurrences, which is one of the OED's great strengths. A.M. and P.M., for morning and afternoon, go back to the seventeenth century, for example, and OK goes back to 1839. OED itself is an initialism, though if it occurred more frequently in the text messages of middle schoolers, critics might find a reason to condemn it. (On the other hand, critics might be overjoyed to see text messages that referred to the OED).  

The OED entry for OMG traces it back to 1917, long before the digital revolution, though the word doesn't become current until the 1990s. Should the OED ignore such history just because the term is associated with informal speech and writing?

Like all good dictionaries, the OED is updated regularly to reflect changes in English. One advantage of digital dictionaries over hard copy is that corrections and additions can be made more frequently, and more economically. But many people think that dictionaries are language bibles, to be messed with at one's peril, and they scrutinize such updates looking for signs of editorial weakness or language decay.

That's why, when ain't appeared in Merriam-Webster's Third New International Dictionary back in 1961, it was roundly condemned as a sign of the death of the dictionary, if not the death of English. Webster's Third was attacked as permissive, misguided, even dangerous, because it stated explicitly the editing principle of all contemporary lexicographers: to describe the language as it is actually used by its speakers and writers.

Lexicographers know that readers look to dictionaries for advice as well as description. People want to use words in a correct or acceptable sense, and they want to know which words might get them into trouble with their audience. Truth in definition requires dictionaries both to describe words and, in some cases, to comment on how certain words may be perceived, what stigmas they may carry, what insults they may convey. Without pulling punches, Webster's tells readers that many people disapprove of ain't and associate it with less-educated speakers. But the editors add that ain't is also used "by many cultivated speakers," and whatever critics may think, that's no lie. 

It ain't necessarily so: Although lexicographers clearly pointed out that ain't is "disapproved by many" and often occurs in "less educated speech," putting ain't into Webster's Third (1961) sparked a round of condemnations that "Ain't ain't a word." Few critics acknowledged that saying "Ain't ain't a word" proved that ain't was in fact a word.

The New York Times praised the OED for adding OMG and the ♥ symbol, further proof that English is not fixed and finite, but plastic and boundless. Even though the Times got some of its facts wrong, its ♥ was in the right place. 

Maybe the OED will eventually take fuller advantage of the internet's graphics capabilities and define icons and visual symbols in a future update. If it does, critics can fight back with negative graphics of their own. They could even put a "no hearts" symbol on a T-shirt or a bumper sticker. After all, language is plastic and boundless. There are plenty of reasons to ♥ the OED. There may even be reasons to unheart it. But before you attack or praise the OED for including the heart symbol, remember this: ♥ may be in the newspaper, but it isn't in the dictionary. At least not yet.  


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Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois and writes regularly on linguistic issues at The Web of Language. He is the author of A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution. You can follow him on Twitter @DrGrammar. Click here to read more articles by Dennis Baron.

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Comments from our users:

Monday April 11th 2011, 10:56 AM
Comment by: Nancy M. (Tulsa, OK)
Hmmm - "heart" ain't in the dictionary ?
Monday April 11th 2011, 9:21 PM
Comment by: Julie (Chicago, IL)
ROTFLMAO
Thursday April 28th 2011, 11:10 PM
Comment by: Fiona W. (Portland, OR)
OMG! I heart this story. :)
Sunday June 12th 2011, 7:10 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
These writers are genious-presenting so much information for curious members like me.
I like OMG. But the problem is twisting. When OMG generates CMG or KCMG, these are not objection free symbols/words.
Religious minded people will object.

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A roundup of the more reasonable reactions to the OED's latest additions.
Happy Birthday, OK!
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The great Americanism "OK" recently celebrated its 172nd birthday.
"Abbreviation play" was popular in the early 19th century.