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Dictionaries have a way of making society obvious to itself — and quite snappily in the digital age by wizardry that captures instantly how words are used, and how often. Oxford University Press, the pre-eminent standard in lexicography, draws daily on about 13,000 RSS feeds worldwide to stock its corpus, or warehouse of words, now numbering more than 8 billion, and named “Komodo” conceivably a nod to the gigantism — and territorial dominance — of the lizard. This is of more than passing interest to us, I learned recently. Komodo, it turns out, established that the word that trended most in SA in 2018 was “expropriation”. If this tells us something we already knew, it confirms the intensity of a stubborn political idea. Less encouraging is the possibility that the idea is now so familiar and commonplace that it tempts complacency. To borrow from the language universe, “general acceptance” as Kingsley Amis has observed, can confer acceptability on atrocious usage, for though a “crude...

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