Dictionaries Ain't What They Used To Be

Dictionaries Ain't What They Used To Be


While reading an article in The Atlantic, I stumbled upon a word I hadn't seen before: compersion. The word was not in any dictionary of standard English. I found compersion in both of the alternative dictionaries born by social media and wiki sites, the Urban Dictionary and Wiktionary.

Standard dictionaries evolve more slowly than everyday use of the English language. For example, ain't is used in the title of this blog. The word is a modification of amn't, a contraction of am not which has been used in Ireland and Scotland since the 18th century. But its mutation, ain't, informally evolved to mean is not, are not, and am not in certain dialects. Standard dictionaries prior to 1993 banished the word from standard English and warned not to use it in formal writing. In 1993 Merriam-Webster reinstated ain't without labeling it as slang or substandard English. Essentially, Merriam-Webster decided it ain't substandard now, thus giving more status to special American dialects. A few other standard dictionaries are following suit.

The Internet opened the door for anyone with a computer or a similar device to contribute to and edit wiki reference publications (Wikipedia, Wiktionary, WikiHow, etc.). Foremost among the wiki dictionaries is the Urban Dictionary started in 1999 by Aaron Peckham, a college freshman who rebelled against formal dictionaries in favor of how English was actually spoken across diverse cultures. In a friend of the court brief submitted for the ACLU, Peckman wrote: "Free speech and the Internet go hand in hand because online, anyone with a computer can be heard. The Internet equalizes people like that — no matter how much money you have, or how old you are, you can connect with a huge number of people..."

The Urban Dictionary was given credence on several occasions by influencing court cases when slang terms could not be found in other sources to determine how words were used in criminal or "street" conversations. For example, a court used the Urban Dictionary in a sexual harassment case to clarify the term "to nut" (slang for a male orgasm).

 Non-standard dictionaries, unlike our more familiar standardized dictionaries, quickly evolve as the meaning of words transform along with our fast-moving culture.

From Wiktionary:

  1. The feeling of joy one has when experiencing another's joy, such as in witnessing a toddler's joy and feeling joy in response. 
  2. The feeling of joy associated with seeing a loved one love another; contrasted with jealousy. 

From the Urban Dictionary:


A feeling of joy when a loved one invests in and takes pleasure from another romantic or sexual relationship.
Commentary: Compersion can be thought of as the opposite of "jealousy;" it is a positive emotional reaction to a loved one's other relationship.

The Wiktionary definition prioritizes the original (non-sexual) use of the term and secondarily adds the more current sexual/romantic meaning.

The Urban Dictionary includes only the more modern sexual/romantic definition. The Urban Dictionary's definition has risen to prominence in today's more sexually open culture.

Articles containing compersion today are almost exclusively about polyamory, polyfidelity, and other open relationships, however, some do include a strictly monogamous variation in which each partner shares with the other, pleasures of actual past, or fantasized romantic encounters with a third party.

So the next time you find yourself in a social gathering lost in unfamiliar cliquish terms, pull out your Android app or your iPhone app and check Urban Dictionary before you smile and nod, lest you may be to something you might regret.

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