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.


KateGladstone said...

For the people who object to any word coming to refer to something that no dictionary has yet noticed that word referring to:

by Kate Gladstone

(tune: "The Irish Rover")

People say the English tongue
Is coming quite unsprung,
When words get new meanings, lose the ones they had.
Check the Oxford Dictionary,
And you'll find this isn't scary,
Degenerate, or new, or even bad.

In the days of Chaucer, once
You called your friend a DUNCE,
And meant he was a high-class intellectual:
But if you called somebody NICE,
What you meant, to be precise,
Was to label him as dim and ineffectual.

CHORUS: They lament what we've done
To the old mother tongue,
Howling "crime" and claiming multitudes misuse it ...
If they'd practice what they preach,
They'd speak eight-hundred-year-old speech ...
If they won't, they shouldn't say that we abuse it.

If you call word-changes bad,
And you say they make you SAD --
This, eight hundred years ago, meant down-to-earth ...
If all usage must be old,
Then STARVE is "die of cold,"
And AMUSED is "stunned," instead of "touched by mirth".

NAUGHTY now means nothing much --
An infant's prank or such --
But long ago in Chaucer's day medieval,
Or even Shakespeare's time,
It meant "hostile", "prone to crime",
"Worthless" (morally, or otherwise), and "evil."


If you call a girl a HUSSY,
And she gets all mean and fussy,
Say you haven't cast aspersions on her life,
Tell her that your speech is pure,
And she therefore should be sure
That you meant -- like men of old -- she's a "housewife."

Find an English-usage smarty
And invite him to a party.
Offer POISON. He will think you've lost your mind.
You should whine and act offended
That your friendship now is ended,
Like the former meaning: "drink of any kind."


He'll call your behavior AWFUL.
As a compliment it's lawful
To accept this, for as such it has no flaw --
If words mustn't ever change
To new meanings, it's not strange
That he kindly found his host "inspiring awe."

If they call me SILLY, I'll
Just bow my head and smile --
For this once meant "holy," also "full of joy" --
So this word you surely may
Use of anyone today
Whose devotion to old meanings might annoy.


I hope you liked this song,
And you didn't find it long --
Call it PRETTY and I'll know just how you feel:
If changed meanings are obscene,
"Crafty's" all that word may mean,
And the meaning of "attractive" can't be real!

WordzGuy said...

WOW! This is fantastic! Thanks for posting!