or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, October 08, 2008


Oh, joy. This again, "this" being someone who thinks he can count the number of words in the English language, and says that we're hovering close to the one-million mark. (The commenters on the Boingboing piece are, for the most part, having none of it, mind you.)

The website referred to is the Global Language Monitor, and I direct you to a piece called Why Webster’s inclusion of the phrase ‘dark energy’ demonstrates the obsolence of old-style dictionaries.

Oops. Yes, that's "obsolence" in the headline, which has been there since (as this picture shows) July 8th and still hasn't been fixed. Maybe the Global Language Monitor is trying to introduce another new word into English to speed up the race to the goal!

Nah, it's just a regular old typo which a spellchecker would immediately have spotlighted and which an organization calling itself the Global Language Monitor ought never to have let make it into print. (The intended word is "obsolescence", which is related to "obsolete" and is thought to be an assemblage of "ob-", "against", plus "solere", "to be accustomed to", plus the suffix "-esce", placing a verb in the indefinite future: it refers, in other words, to something that has been in the process of falling out of custom.)

The writer, Paul Payack, is no better at punctuation: the sentence beginning "You see dark matter" requires a comma after the first two words. Apparently it migrated down the page into the sentence beginning "Perhaps, it is time to realize...", although if you read GLM's website for any length of time you'll discover that Payack has no real idea of how to use a comma correctly. He also thinks that the expression "okay", or "OK", derives from American president Martin Van Buren's nickname, "Old Kinderhook", when the use of the word predates Van Buren's presidential run by half a century, and someone who uncritically repeats folk etymologies makes me nervous, particularly when we're asked to entrust him with performing a census of the entire tongue.

So we're on track to have exactly a million words in English early next year. Well, what about cleave, which has two separate and opposite meanings with two different and unrelated etymologies? Is that one word, or two? (Payack has already said that, for instance, "water" is counted only once, despite its use as both a noun and a verb, but surely "cleave" counts twice, right?) And more to the point, what of all the words that have cropped up in the countless dialects, creoles, and pidgins of English? Do they all count, too, and if not, why not? How about "capse"? It's not in the OED (except as a thoroughly obsolete word meaning "chest or coffer"), but in Newfoundland it's a variant of "capsize" and refers not specifically to a boat, but to any container that can be tipped over, such as a cooking pot. Is that in the list of every single word in the English language? In fact, is every single word in the Dictionary of Newfoundland English in the list, and if not, why not? Is there some sort of threshold of speakers below which a word doesn't count? Who gets to decide? (Payack has said, badly, “To enter the English language, a word has to meet certain criteria, including: frequency of appearance in the written and spoken language, in the media, have a large geographic footprint, and to stand the test of time." Says who? If fifty thousand people on a small Atlantic island used a word fifty years ago, and wrote it down into the bargain, shouldn't that count?)

It is enormously irritating that someone would take it upon himself to insist that English, that most amoeboid and betentacled of all languages, has a specific and enumerable number of words. It's like declaring yourself the pope of Wordland. And if the pope can't even spell "obsolescence" correctly, or can't even trouble himself to use a spellchecker or an editor, well, what are we to make of his other pronouncements?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

In that case, I say we make you our pope, papi!

Friday, October 10, 2008 1:31:00 PM  
Blogger pyramus said...

Flattering though that is, I don't think it's a good idea to put me in charge of anything. If I were Prime Minister, my first act would be to outlaw chewing gum and car speakers that can produce more than fifty decibels, and if I were the Pope of Wordland, a lot of people would be writing out lines a hundred times.

Friday, October 10, 2008 10:43:00 PM  

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