‘Youth slang’ in the official Scrabble word list

By Rob Drummond

Last week I was invited to appear on BBC Breakfast TV to discuss the fact that Collins has added 6500 new words to the official Scrabble word list. I was asked to appear simply due to the fact that I am a ‘language expert’ and this was a language-related story, but I soon realised that there was was actually something of a link to the work we are doing on this project. The fact is, of the 6500 newly added words, there were only about ten or so which kept popping up in the media stories, and almost all of these could be seen as slang, especially ‘youth’ slang. Of course this will have had a lot to do with the press release from Collins themselves, but I imagine the various media outlets could have looked a bit further if they had been inclined to do so.

So why is this particular choice of illustrative words of interest? Clearly the story was set up in no small part as a marketing strategy, and Collins must have anticipated that highlighting these sorts of words would generate the kind of outrage that would fuel the sharing and commenting needed to deem the activity a success. And they were right. If the stories themselves were relatively impartial, the comments below the stories showed honew-words-blog-header-340w unhappy some people were at this ‘dumbing down’ of Scrabble. And these opinions weren’t always restricted to the comments – the story in The Telegraph included  the following quote:

Sue Bowman, membership secretary of the British Association of Scrabble Players, said the compilation was “an abuse of the English language”.

But of course people were only responding to that small subset of new words that could be seen as modern/youth slang. Also within that list of 6500 new words is coqui, a type of tree-dwelling frog, oxazole, a type of liquid chemical compound, and vape, but these were mentioned much less in the news stories, and hardly at all in the comments. There is, after all, often a fine line between what is considered slang and what is considered jargon (sexting, hacktivist, tweep?), and the latter is infinitely more prestigious than the former.

Personally, I think the focus on words such as shizzle, lolz, obvs and ridic speaks volumes about the type of prejudice that surrounds ‘youth language’. I tried to make this point in the BBC discussion (there is rarely enough time to go into much detail) by suggesting that the reason it is the slang words that people are complaining about, despite the fact that they are used far more frequently every day than some of the other words, is purely because of which section of society they are associated with. Anyone who knows anything about the language of young people is well aware that in the hands of expert users it is no less complex or expressive than any other language. Some of these slang words have subtleties of meaning and use that are lost to outsiders, yet they are routinely dismissed as being of no value. And it is this perceived lack of value that I think is such a shame, as it reflects the extent to which young people themselves are often undervalued.

I should point out, apart from the person quoted above in The Telegraph, the real Scrabble experts seem to be in favour of the changes. For them, new words mean more ammunition in what is, after all, a game. Indeed, the scrabble expert who appeared on BBC Breakfast with me, Allan Simmons, was keen to explain how language is always changing, and that many established words would have been seen as slang at one point. And it should be remembered that these words are simply being added to the list of acceptable words in a board game, they are not necessarily being added to a dictionary as such.

All in all, the addition of a few new words in the official Scrabble word list clearly nothing to get worked up about. However, in its own small way, I think it does highlight a deep-seated linguistic prejudice in our society in which youth language is routinely looked down upon and dismissed as uneducated or ‘bad’ English.