The 365 Ways Blog

Michael Norton is author of "365 Ways to Change the World", which provides an issue for each day of the year, interesting facts, inspiring case studies of people doing things to address the issue and ideas for action. Originally published in the UK, versions with local content have been published in Australia, Canada, India, South Africa and the USA. To find out more visit our website:

06 June 2008

Words, words, words

Words not only enable us to communicate, they also define the society we live in.

New words and phrases arise when we have something new to communicate which can’t be expressed in existing language – from Weapons of Mass Destruction and the Axis of Evil to Sub-Prime Mortgages and Collateralised Debt Obligations or Greenhouse Gases and Carbon Offsetting, new ideas need new words to express them. But new words also arise through the new ways of communication that we have now developed (such as e-mailing, texting, talking in chatrooms, on-line gaming, rapping…), through spin and PR-speak (which seeks to obscure or manipulate our messages), and within particular groups (such as gangsta culture and business-speak).

Because of rapid technological and social change, language now seems to be evolving faster and faster.

Someone somewhere today will feel a need to say something which needs a new word, and invents that word. Then its usage may spread (slowly or extremely rapidly) so that it becomes accepted slang or even enters a mainstream dictionary.

The Urban Dictionary
Eric Pederson, head linguistics at the University of Oregon, has kept an online slang dictionary since 2000 (at All undergraduates taking his Linguistics 101 course have to collect terms for the dictionary from a community or social group other than their own. If you are not an undergraduate on this course, you can register with the website and you will then be able to contribute your own words and definitions. This dictionary now has definitions of nearly 7,000 words.

Aaron Peckham, now a Silicon Valley software engineer, launched in 1999 at age 18 whilst a freshman at Cal Poly State University. He wanted to parody traditional dictionaries by providing definitions of words that would never qualify for an entry in any mainstream publication. His website now has 1 million definitions for 600,000 words, and some 2,000 new definitions are being created every day. About half the words and new definitions submitted are actually put online; before this happens, they are scrutinised via a team of around 6,500 volunteer editors. Dictionary users can vote “for” or “against” each definition, edit an entry or submit a new word for inclusion.

“Aaron Peckham was chillin' at the computer nine years ago, when he dreamed up Urban Dictionary – a ridonkulous slang online dictionary co-created by fellow technogeeks.” Find out what these words mean at

Here is an example of how it works. David Turnbull used the term "California car pool" in an online exchange with someone, who didn't know what it meant. He had been using this phrase for several years. So he turned to for a definition. As there was no entry for this, he submitted this definition: "When each member of a group uses their own car to go to the same destination." This was published and gained more than 1,600 votes of approval.

Do something:
1. Sign up to receive the word of the day. Each day a word (and its definition) will arrive in your inbox. Subscription is free.

For 23rd April 2008 the word of the day was “Power Outage Baby”. Definition: Some years back the power went out in San Francisco for a long time due [to a supply shortage]. Nine months later, there was a certain increase in birthrate. If you were born nine months after a power outage, you are a power outage baby.

2. Resolve to use the Word of the Day in your speech at some time during the day.
3. Write a definition for a slang word that you came across, or invent a new word. Submit it to

The English Project
The English Project is creating a 'living museum' of the English language where visitors can explore the English language in all its complexity across time and geography. It aims to deepen people’s understanding and knowledge of the language, its history and continuing development so that English speakers everywhere can better appreciate, use and enjoy it.

It will include all forms of English so as to reflect the amazing variety and power and adaptability of the language – from the street and workplace to science and advertising. There will be a core exhibition tracking the broad development of the language over the past 1,500 years across the globe but it will be supplemented constantly by temporary exhibitions focused on special aspects and applications of English in, for example, pop music and science, law and love.

English-language speakers are constantly creating their own new words and meanings in their lives and families for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes these private words gain wider currency and, over time, come into common usage and perhaps are even included in mainstream to the dictionaries. Although more often these words will remain the preserve of the people or group that invented them.

The English Project’s Kitchen Table Lingo Project aims to collect these private words and bring them to a wider audience. So if you, your friends, family, or workmates have special words with special meanings that you use amongst yourselves, then submit them to:

The Future Dictionary of America
As a reaction to the excesses of the Neo-Con culture of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld years, a dictionary was created as a guide to the American language sometime in the future, when all or most of the USA’s problems had been solved and the 2000-2008 administration was just a distant memory. The book includes contributions from almost 200 writers who were asked to invent words that reflected the time and its excesses, and then provide a definition for their word.