Back in the days before the internet, this is how a dictionary worked: You read or hear a word you did not know the meaning of, looked it up, and voila! The light of new knowledge poured into your mind. A wonderful side-effect of this exercise was the discovery of new words as you browsed. Now, there is no browsing — even curiosity is customised, one searchable term at a time. But even the most basic purpose of the dictionary — to tell people what a word means — lies in tatters.
Collins Dictionary’s “Word of the Year” for 2021 is “NFT” — an abbreviation that stands for “non-fungible token”. The reason for its selection is reportedly the “meteoric” rise in its use over the last year. NFT is indeed one of the most popular bits of fintech babble that has graced the page and screen and its competition was words like “crypto” and “metaverse”. But what is a non-fungible token? An NFT, according to Collins Dictionary, is a “unique digital certificate, registered in a blockchain, that is used to record ownership of an asset such as an artwork or a collectible”.
Digital artworks have been selling for exorbitant amounts in recent months and NFTs seem to have something to do with that. However, the dictionary definition leaves one none the wiser as to what they actually are. Money? Authentication certificates for art works? A digital medium of exchange? The answer is likely a bit of all of the above. It seems that an abbreviation is the word of the year because of its popularity — the obsolete dictionary seems to want to ride the popularity of the tech wave to boost its publicity. Unfortunately, the ubiquity of the term is only matched by the opacity of its meaning — something Collins doesn’t help with. No worries, though. After all, you can always google it.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on November 26, 2021 under the title ‘Dictionary definition’.