Monday, November 13, 2006

Is that a word? It is now.

The perennial if wrongheaded question "Is that even a word?" implies that there is some sort of club with highly selective entrance criteria that certainly does not admit the lexical hoi polloi that like to pretend they have wordical membership. Erin McKean, who's an editor at the New American Oxford Dictionary, has, I think, the last word (haha) on that:

Lots of people (and by "lots" I mean roughly 99% of everyone I've ever spoken to) believe that the dictionary is a Who's Who of words. That it's like Ivy League college admissions. That only the really good words, the ones that have eaten all their spinach and who play the oboe and who get high scores on the SAT, make it into the dictionary. That the words that make it into the dictionary are somehow "realler" than the words that don't.
Some people have the idea that if a word isn't in the dictionary, they can't use it. This is not a rule any lexicographer ever came up with (think about it — if this were true, we'd all be out of jobs right quick) and luckily not a rule that most people follow. If a word you want to use isn't in the dictionary (and you're sure you haven't just misspelled it — hey, don't worry, it happens to everyone), go ahead and use it! That's the best way to get it in the next edition, and then everyone's happy.(1)
So. This thought forced onto you as a prelude to noting that the Oxford Univeristy Press people have recently announced their "Word of the Year," which this time goes to the term (as opposed to word) carbon neutral. Perhaps this term got a boost from its political timeliness, whatever. I found some of the runners-up more interesting:

funner as a comparative for fun. Now there's a term that earn endless opprobrium.

Islamofascism, another terribly timely term, which is partly interesting because it reflects the continuing widespread use of the term fascism among people who, I suspect, could not define it to save their lives.

pregaming, another lovely use of the flexible pre- suffix.

There you have it folks -- words in the dictionary, all legal-like. What could be funner?

PS Among the comments, one person suggests the term pre-mortem, used (possibly in a new metaphorical way -- see Webster's) by Glenn Reynolds for his gloomy predictions about the recent "thumping" the GOP got, to quote our president. (Which reminds me also the pre-buttal tactic that emerged a few years back, and which has made it to Webster's.)

(1) For those who've , ahem, seen this before, apologies for the double posting.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Noah's Mark

The New Yorker has an article this week on Noah Webster's quest to create a dictionary of American English. A noteworthy aspect of the article is the description of the vitriol that Webster and other, similar champions of American English encountered in the teeth of snobbishness and conservatism. Small example:
"A disgusting collection" of idiotic words coined by "presumptuous ignorance," one critic wrote, referring to Americanisms like "wigwam," "rateability," "caucus," and "lengthy" (lengthy? what's next, "strenghty?"). "The Columbian Dictionary," as he saw it, was nothing more than "a record of our imbecility."
I wrote up some excerpts from the article on my other blog, and rather than repeat them here, I'll just link to that. But you can comment here if you want!