‘Isekai’ Transported Into the Oxford English Dictionary

The dictionary. It’s the tool we use when we want to prove a word isn’t real and when someone uses a word wrong. Literally. And I mean “literally” as literally and not hyperbolically. And now anime fans in the English-speaking world can argue isekai is now a word. But, it’s a little more complicated than that.

As announced on the Oxford English Dictionary’s (OED’s) X (formerly Twitter) account and homepage, the dictionary has now included a slew of Japanese loan words into their most recent update. Among the words are “tonkotsu,” “donburi,” “okonomiyaki,” “onigiri,” “tokusatsu,” and for us anime fans, “isekai.” However, this isn’t the first time Japanese loan words have entered the English lexicon. Past examples include words such as “ramen,” “anime,” and “manga.”

So, how does the OED define “isekai”? According to the dictionaries homepage, the word is defined as:

A Japanese genre of science or fantasy fiction featuring a protagonist who is transported to or reincarnated in a different, strange, or unfamiliar world. Also: an anime, manga, video game, etc., in this genre. Frequently as a modifier.

Translators may argue the definition, but this is a concise and apt definition of the word. But, this brings up an interesting question: How are words added to the English language and subsequently the dictionary anyway?

And Now, a Word About Words

The former is far easier to answer. The English language brings in new words by usage, particularly widespread usage. A great example of this are slang terms. Take, for example, the word “rizz.” A shortening of the word “charisma,” “rizz” saw wide-spread usage and adoption in the late 2010s and early 2020s. A similar argument can be made with “anime.” While the word was in use pre-2000s, it wasn’t widely adopted until about the 2000s – with the medium oft being called “Japanimation” long before. And it really doesn’t matter if a word appears in a dictionary or not to be considered a word.

This is most recognized with the word “ain’t.” Often used to mean “am not” or “is not,” “ain’t” is derided by a certain sect of people. Yet, according to Merriam-Websters Dictionary, the word has been in use since 1749. So, take that, people who say ain’t ain’t a word.

So, if a word is widely used and adopted, it enters the dictionary? Well, this isn’t exactly the case either. In a March 2017 Vox YouTube interview with Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary associate editor Kory Stamper, Stamper notes Merriam-Webster’s includes words when they meet three criteria: 1) Widespread use, 2) Shelf life, and 3) Meaningful use. So, if we apply the same criteria to “isekai,” the word meets widespread use (at least among anime and manga fans) and has meaningful use. As for shelf life, only time will really tell. But, with the current popularity of isekai stories, we probably won’t see it go anywhere for a while, especially when we’ve turned it into the verb “isekaied.”

There is one other aspect of dictionary use that comes to the forefront with the addition of “isekai” into the OED. Do we use a dictionary to impose how words should be used, or do we use dictionaries to help us understand how words are used? In more technical terms, do we want dictionaries to be prescriptive or descriptive? The same Vox interview mentioned above goes into this further, and for the most part, Stamper notes how many modern dictionaries are descriptive in their use.

In fact, there was a whole issue with the Webster’s Third New International as it shifted from a more prescriptive style to a descriptive style. This caused a rift to the point the American Heritage Dictionary was created. But, even now, the American Heritage Dictionary leans on descriptive usage, while still retaining its prescriptive roots. So, in this sense, the word “isekai” being included in the OED isn’t a way for the dictionary to impose how the word should be used, but noting how it is used.

With “isekai” now in the OED, there’s no telling what other anime and manga terms will enter the English lexicon. For me, I’m hoping for the dictionary entry for the word “name” will include how this term (ネーム) is used in the manga publishing industry (the rough thumbnail draft or storyboard of a manga). But, only time will tell.

Sources: Oxford English Dictionary (link 2), Oxford English Dictionary’s X/Twitter account, The Guardian, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, Vox’s YouTube channel

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