Buzzfeed: Lists…and Linguistics

buzzfeed

My name is Alysa, and I’m addicted to the website Buzzfeed.  If you are, too, I’m not judging you.  But sometimes other people are.  Little do they know, though, that as we’re doing silly quizzes and perusing lists of weird news stories from Florida, we may also be witnessing linguistic history.

While Buzzfeed’s success has increased exponentially in the past few years, its founders haven’t decided to rest on their laurels.  A few months ago, they introduced Spanish, French, and Brazilian Portuguese versions of the site, with English-language content converted by volunteers using Duolingo, a language-learning program that compiles users’ translation attempts.  And just like that, Buzzfeed went from being a way to get a few laughs, to something that could also be a teaching tool.

But it’s another linguistic choice by the site that’s stopped me in my tracks.  On February 4th, Buzzfeed posted its Style Guide, and it has amazed me.  For one thing, it’s a surprising move; if you read a lot of articles there, you know they’re often minefields of grammatical and spelling errors.  So it’s odd that Buzzfeed published a guide like this — unless it’s all a way to tell contributors to shape up?  The site is starting to branch out and offer journalistic, in-depth articles on politics, human rights issues, and other more serious stuff, after all….

Curiosity aside, what gives me pause is the fact that Buzzfeed may have created a perfect resource for future linguistic researchers. It’s fascinating to find out where words come from.  Linguists can be like detectives, often dedicating years to hunting down the origin of a particular element of vocabulary.  It may seem easy, especially if a word is more modern, but it’s often quite the opposite.  Take, for example, this fascinating installment of Slate’s Lexicon Valley podcast that talks about the search for the origins of the word “dude”.  If you listen to the podcast, you’ll find that linguists used much more than the sources you’d expect – even going so far as looking into old mail-order catalogues.

A few centuries from now, some linguist might be searching for when we started, say, writing “baby daddy” as two words, and the clearly dated and documented Buzzfeed Style Guide might provide a handy milestone.  Or if someone is looking for an idea of slang and pop culture references in early 2014, this guide would be the equivalent to finding a chest of buried treasure.  It’s also an interesting source for broader concepts, like how Generation Y (or at least a site many of its members read) has changed or chosen to keep certain punctuation rules.  The Guide’s explanation of colon usage, for example, seems downright stodgy – albeit reassuringly reasonable.  Heck, we don’t even need to wait to see the Buzzfeed Style Guide’s fascination for language lovers: Time Magazine has already analyzed parts of it in their Wednesday Words feature.

In addition to its potential historical significance, I think the Buzzfeed Style Guide is also an excellent one for everyday life.  It isn’t afraid to delve into the complications of the suffix “-ass”, but it also doesn’t shy away from traditional ways of punctuating and writing things, either; it excels is in balancing the new and the old, realizing that grammar isn’t just a bunch of rules – it’s there to help us, ideally, express ourselves as clearly as possible.

With all this in mind, maybe us Buzzfeed fans can now feel totally justified in heading over there to read a ranking of grilled cheese sandwiches.

Alysa Salzberg

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