Erikka Askeland: A book of words is a thing of beauty

Picture: PA
Picture: PA
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I AM not much of a “thing” person. Except for some things. There are the functional items I find it hard to be without, such as my laptop and phone. Oh and I rather like the espresso machine.

Then there are the ones with sentimental value – the Welsh wool blanket my grandmother had that now sits folded on the sofa and which has followed me from home to home through the years.

Otherwise, I reckon you’ve got to keep it lean. Too much clutter and you risk being tied down to a heap of mere stuff. These are the collected items that, come moving day, you realise amounts to a truck full of junk hardly anyone would bother going out of their way to take to the tip, let alone pay you for if you wanted to sell up.

Yet there are just a few things I regret no longer having. Having recently been divorced, it was relatively straightforward to endure the wearisome allocation of stuff which ensues in a separation. Except for the dictionary. It was a two volume edition of the Oxford English Dictionary found in a remainder shop for a very good price. Still it was expensive considering how skint we were, but it was a sound investment nevertheless. Probably one of the best I’ve made.

Not that I sat around the flat reading it for hours on end. But it was there to be consulted on a whim. For those ineluctable times you needed to look up the word “ineluctable”. And as a Scrabble reference – well, let’s just say it backs you up on pretty much anything. I’m sure if I’d had my trusty OED to hand rather than the crappy pocket Collins at the B&B recently, I’d have won that game. Not that I’m bitter.

Of course, I wouldn’t have the shelf space to keep the full version of the OED, which runs to 20 volumes and includes more than 600,000 words. But now, in this digital age, you can get it all in a more sensible, but less impressive, online format.

The switch from hardback to ethereal is beneficial, as it means its diligent editorial staff can include new words that come into use more regularly, as well as add recent definitions to existing ones. While The Scotsman’s ancient edition in our library upstairs is still a useful tool, it doesn’t have meanings for anything that might have entered the language since about 1933.

This week, the good people at the OED unveiled the latest bon mots to be added to the dictionary’s store of English terminology. The team behind the dictionary does not include words lightly or willy-nilly. As it explains in its “frequently asked questions” page on its website, it only goes for neologisms once the team has seen sufficient evidence of their usage, preferably in print. Unlike other faddy dictionaries, once the word or twist on its meaning is in there, it stays.

The inclusion of new words tell us something about our times. This week the added terms are ones that have become all too wearingly familiar – “debt trap”, “payday loan”, “fiscal cliff” and “binge drinking”. I’m sure you can see how all of those hang together nicely.

I’ll also bet good money that many of The Scotsman’s readers have attempted “dad dancing” – whether you know you have or not.

Of course “tweet”, noun and verb, has been amended to include the activity of those that send out brief messages of up to 140 characters from their computers or mobile devices. Thanks to the extended meaning, it is officially possible to correct those fuddy duddies who go on about how in their day it was just birds that did that sort of thing.

And for fans of the Scots dialect – of which I am one – the word “cludgie” has at last made the official list. Although what its sudden breakthrough into the mainstream says about the modern day, I’m not sure.

According to linguist Susan Harvey, some dialect words get in but certainly not all. The OED includes them when they have passed into common use, as the compilers argue that they “have to draw a line somewhere”. The line has now been extended to include Glasgow’s colourful toilet talk.

I could go on about language and how we use it because it is so compelling. And one day, when I find another copy of the OED to keep at home, I will cherish it.