Dictionaries, by their own definition, are the touchstones of our vocabulary, allowing us to source any word at the flick of a page. They are densely packed with etymologies, translations, pronunciations, providing endless possibilities for those seeking an intellectual edge to their conversation. More importantly, they reveal the journey of our vernacular, from then to now. However, the dictionary has acquired a rival which threatens to override its significance, rendering it an archaic practice: the internet.
Those with access to this inconceivable plethora of information can simply type in a word to Google, and within seconds its definition is revealed. I often find myself guilty of such convenience; too lazy to walk the extra metre to my dictionary to labour through its pages. The internet remains a truly thrilling and terrifying notion to me: thrilling because of its possibilities; terrifying because of its omniscience. To resort to a cliché, it is a blessing and a curse. Not only does it threaten the use of dictionaries, it also places the future of physical novels, the ink-written and printed word, in jeopardy.
Perhaps the internet’s astronomical rise was the catalyst in the Oxford English Dictionary’s decision to include the first graphic image into its new edition. The love-heart, ♥, has become a ubiquitous feature of ‘the social network’. Some may assert that it breaks up a monotony of words, injecting a slice of individuality and colour into a mundane sentence. Yet, it remains neither truly colourful nor unique. Its meanings are multifaceted: as a cheap declaration of ‘love’, an example of wordless excitement, affection, gratitude, joy. Cheap merely because it is not verbal, instead acting as a very public and empty expression. This should not prevent its use online; it should merely indicate the love-heart’s anomalous position amongst written words.
This abbreviation of an arguably significant word, ‘love’, is not the first. Other recent acronyms such as ‘OMG’ and ‘LOL’ have also been added to the OED. All of these terms are synonymous with social networking sites, thus becoming representative of the hi-tech generation. Whilst the love-heart may not be the symbol of the 21st Century zeitgeist, it encapsulates a certain element of modern times. Abbreviations reflect our age to an extent. As Stephen Fry recently stated in the Radio Times, language is “entirely your own and that of your clan, your tribe, your nation and your people”. Vernacular is at the centre of our world, forming the basis of our expression and communication. It changes through us. Yet, to place an unpronounceable symbol amongst spoken words feels wrong. Dictionaries are not sacred tombs but they are important artefacts in our lives. Whilst they are not necessarily necessities, they are indisputably valuable in the pursuit of understanding the aetiology of language. A love-heart will hardly illuminate the foundations of dialect.
Although criticising the inclusion of graphic imagery within dictionaries seems needless, it is a practice which can only grow. It reminds me of the Eleventh Edition of the Newspeak Dictionary in ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, the perfect culmination of language in which no word is obsolete. Language is dumbed down following the erasure of numerous adjectives and verbs, rendering humans as verbally unconscious and incapable of individual expression. The introduction of ♥ to dictionaries resembles the eradication of complex thought, since it is essentially a ‘destruction of words’ (to quote Orwell) in favour of a simpler ocular approach. Perhaps this is merely the progression of the English language; perhaps in a hundred years our own dialect will be superseded. Yet, my mind continues to rebel against the heart sign. There is no meaning or emotion in someone saying ‘I ♥ you’ whilst clumsily gesturing the love-heart symbol with their hands. All romance is drained from the image, leaving it dry and hollow.
The underlying issue is that the boundaries between cyberspace and reality have become increasingly blurred. Speech is now punctuated by ‘OMG’ and ‘totes’, whilst technology is slowly replacing books. It is this loss of the corporeal which riles me most. The heart-shaped graphic is entirely ocular; it has no sound, no senses, no physicality or imagination which words and language possess. Words are associated with objects, with all of our senses, not merely sight. They conjure images of their own which do not require special graphic references in dictionaries. The inclusion of the ♥ is clearly an attempt to provide the Oxford English Dictionary with a dose of ‘youth culture’, stemming from a paltry desire to highlight the modern relevance of (supposed) words. Ironically, it fails to understand the real meaning of ‘dictionary’: to unveil the beauty and significance of our spoken and written language.