Thursday, July 06, 2006

Look this one up on the Web

In the news today: M-W has added google to its dictionary as a generic verb. Along with new terms like biodiesel, ringtone, spyware, text messaging, and others.


Andy said...

Critiques of language are not uncommon and can be fun. Examples include
notions like misnomer, misuse of words, and phony words ("irregardless").

Can another more basic critique ever be made, namely, that a given word simply ought not exist?


(1) the word gives us nothing (The N word)
(2) we have scant evidence of an underlying reality [Lock Ness Monster, super
(2) there is a misimpression that an objective standard or thing exists outside
of the human person ["super" model, onus]
(3) the thing truly does *not exist [kooties (sp) or lugies (UK)]
(4) the word gives an overstated impression of the thing's comprehensibility
[e.g. Infinity, God, Sublime]
(5) a word's dubious implicit connotation [UFO, stimatizing psychological
diagnoses] seems inseparable from and undermine its useful dictionary
(6) two words identically refer to the same thing, leading to errors of false
dichotomy (hurricane and typhoon?)
(7) other

Is there a notably literature in linguists that may have studies this
question? P.S. Don't mistake these instances from the easier cases of

Andy Donlan, Ph.D.

reply to [my initials]

WordzGuy said...

There are two fundamental approaches to this question. The first, which your questions lead toward, is that there are absolutes in language -- linguistic, philsophical, moral, ethical -- and that there is an imperative to compare the language as it is used against these standards and make judgements about how well words, usages, dialects, etc. measure up, and urge corrections that lead language toward these standards.

The more common view in contemporary linguistics -- generally known as the descriptivist approach -- is to take an effectively anthropological approach, namely that of the observer who approaches the subject without the intent to prejudge, but simply to record. We generally accept that when a linguist is charged with recording the language of a hitherto unknown peoples (the stereotypical newly discovered tribe, let's imagine), it's the linguist's job to record the new language as it is used, and not to teach the speakers in what manner they are misusing their language. If you can imagine English being this language, you've got a picture of what linguists are interested in.

Take your pick. No one would ever argue that linguists have no opinions about language. Quite the contrary; have a gander at posts by Geoff Pullman or Mark Liberman on the Language Log. [] And there are branches of linguistics -- or perhaps more accurately, interdisciplinary studies -- that investigate such topics as the impact of language, the socio-economic ramifications of dialectical usage, and so on.

Words are out there. Many people have opinions about them, pro and con. Most people -- namely, the majority of speakers -- never give a thought to the opinions of the lexirati. I personally am not familiar with a single case whereby a word fell out of usage directly as a consequence of disapproval by the pundits. (If disapproval were to have some effect on usage, one would imagine that widely disparaged words like "ain't" would long since have disappeared. Yet they continue, strong as ever.)