Dictionary that is not updated dies – 06/07/2023 – Sérgio Rodrigues

Dictionary that is not updated dies – 06/07/2023 – Sérgio Rodrigues

I read in the Portuguese press that the great two-volume dictionary of the Lisbon Academy of Sciences has just incorporated a new batch of words “that have become part of the Portuguese lexicon”, including cryptocurrency, metaverse and podcast.

These words are not new in the lexicographic universe of our language: even in Portugal, where the attachment to tradition is greater, the excellent Priberam digital dictionary, for example, has already included all of them for some time. The news is worth the institutional weight of the work in question.

In any case, it is a good opportunity to reflect on the role of dictionaries in establishing a vocabulary, let’s say, approved, official, amidst the endless mess that is a real language, a tireless machine for producing meanings and generating words. –and also to kill them by disuse.

The subject was dealt with in the column not long ago, regarding the introduction by the Michaelis dictionary –very publicized and somewhat clumsy– of the entry “pelé” as a common noun and, bizarrely, as an adjective as well.

The risks of conservatism in this case cannot be overemphasized. A dictionary that stands still falls into obsolescence, becomes a tallow curiosity. This law has been around forever, but it’s likely that the digital revolution is making the pace of updates ever faster.

It follows that lexicography needs to be more rigorous, not less. If it is wise to flee from the reactionary attachment to yesterday’s conventions, one must be careful not to fall into the opposite abyss, that of novelty plays with media appeal.

Before “pelé”, perhaps Michaelis should have enthroned among its entries words in more common use –and important for understanding the contemporary world–, such as metaverse and cryptocurrency, following the example of the Lisbon Academy dictionary.

When you don’t do this, you go back to the end of the line. Before the competitor from Lisbon, both Houaiss and Orthographic Vocabulary (Volp) from the Brazilian Academy of Letters had already arrived there.

These also bring the third noun highlighted as a novelty in the Portuguese news, podcast (with recommended spelling in italics, as it is a word in the English language not adapted). Recognize, however, that in this case Michaelis is on the same page as well.

A very keen ear for the proverbial “street talk” is not always a good adviser. Take the case of a Brazilian slang coined by advertising, “boko-moko”, a cross between tacky and stupid, which was somewhat successful in 1970, driven by a television commercial for guarana.

Success was brief, soon boko-moko became period slang and, at some point in the 1980s, a museum piece. The Houaiss entry, with the spelling “bocomoco” and the definition “silly, weird, out-of-date individual”, mentions the hallmarks of his condition: Brazilianism, informal, obsolete. But the feeling remains that the word shouldn’t even be there.

Incomparably more alive, functional and enshrined in the language of everyday life, everything indicates that the Brazilianism “bateção” is here – and it’s been a while – to stay. Even so, he still hasn’t earned the honor bestowed on “bocomoco” by Houaiss.

In that, look, Michaelis jumped in front. There it is: “beating – repeated action of hitting”. The Volp keeps you company. While the language parades its metamorphoses before our eyes, headbanging in the world of dictionaries is a spectacle of its own.

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