Posts Tagged ‘words’

Paul Payak of the Global Language Monitor is claiming the 1 millionth English word is coming soon.  He says a new English word is coined every 98 minutes, so the 1 million marker will arrive about 15 days hence.  The CBS article that tipped me off to this is pretty amusing in the quotes it selected from linguists, which resoundingly cried “bullshit.”  But the best quote came from Payak himself:

We believe words can be counted if you define them in the right way. You can count them like anything else in science. You can count how many atoms there are in the ocean.

Let’s think about counting the atoms in the ocean for a moment. What about where rivers flow into the ocean? Where is the boundary line? Salt and fresh water are mingling quite a bit and finding the exact boundary is pretty much impossible. If we draw an arbitrary line, surely we will get too much in one place and too little in another. Also, what about rain and evaporation? Counting the atoms would require an instantaneous snapshot of the entire ocean at the atomic level. It can’t be done.

You run into similar problems counting words.  Compound words blend into single words and words leave the language as well as enter it.  How do you detect this?  You’d need a snapshot of the entire English language as it is spoken, typed, and read all around the world.  What is a word in one dialect isn’t necessarily a word in another dialect.  Where do you draw the line?

I hereby declare that the word literally has not lost its meaning, despite a rash of rumors to the contrary.

What would it even mean for a word to lose its meaning? A word can change from one meaning to another, certainly.  Maybe you could argue that a word that has dropped out of usage has lost its meaning..

You hear complaints of that sort all the time, but what is being missed is the fact that language is fluid. Meanings evolve as the need arises (and there are many kinds of  needs). Speakers each carry a somewhat different representation of the language in their heads, and once like-minded speakers agree on a novel usage and adapt it into their own representations, language evolves.

The debate over literally is literally nothing new. Turning to old faithful, the American Heritage dictionary:

Usage Note: For more than a hundred years, critics have remarked on the incoherency of using literally in a way that suggests the exact opposite of its primary sense of “in a manner that accords with the literal sense of the words.” In 1926, for example, H.W. Fowler cited the example “The 300,000 Unionists … will be literally thrown to the wolves.” The practice does not stem from a change in the meaning of literally itself—if it did, the word would long since have come to mean “virtually” or “figuratively”—but from a natural tendency to use the word as a general intensive, as in They had literally no help from the government on the project, where no contrast with the figurative sense of the words is intended.

So literally has been known to be a general intensive for quite some time. Why the fuss now?

Twitter is my new linguistic data collection engine, btw.  Just some of the multitude of great results:

References, “literally,” in The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Source location: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. Available: Accessed: January 27, 2009.

It’s a morning of fun new words! First I hear greenwashing on the Today Show, which Donna likes to watch while she eats brekkie. Then, Language Log delights me with nanoblahblah, henchgoon, and celebufreak. Erin McKean, the Dictionary Evangelist, twitters words of the day so I also got a nice infusion when I examined her twitter feed for the past week or so. A few selections I particularly like that she found: paracosm, yostelumpet, and anthroponymy. And now for the definitions!

  • anthroponymy – the study of the names of human beings [emckean@twitter]
  • celebufreak – a freak with fame (e.g. Kim Kardashian) [Wordlustitude]
  • greenwashing – marketing a product as green when it’s really not [Today show]
  • henchgoon – alternate term for administrative assistant or “assistant of doom” [Wordlustitude]
  • nanoblahblah – very, very tiny nonsense (nanotechnobabble) [Wordlustitude]
  • paracosm – a private imaginary world, esp. made by children to escape harsh circumstances (think Pan’s Labyrinth) [emckean@twitter]
  • yodelumpet – a singing style that combines yodeling and Louis-Armstrong-style trumpet-like sounds [emckean@twitter]

Please note that the twitter links are stable in terms of link permanence, but are unstable in twitter’s ability to serve up the page. So if at first you get a bizarre message with birds, try again. This has also led to the re-discovery of the most excellent Wordlustitude site. I had seen a while ago but for whatever reason didn’t subscribe to it. This has been remedied, and if you like neologisms, I recommend you do the same.


Posted: 15 December 2007 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , ,

I have talked about dictionaries in the past, so you might know that I have a certain fascination with them. One of the best things about the interwebs is the ability to access information about just practically anything in a very short time. If someone mentions some sort of literary reference in a chat, one quick jump to Wikipedia and I can instantly be up to speed. Or if someone uses a word I can’t remember or don’t know the definition of, I can pop over to and quickly discover the missing piece of information.

But just how quickly? I timed the following process for five different words:

  1. open a new tab in firefox
  2. enter in the address bar (the address autocompletes, so I’m only type di, down arrow, enter).
  3. enter the word and wait for the definition

This takes about 7 seconds per word. Part of the slowness is the fact that there are about a bazillion ads on Sometimes I start typing but not all of the ads have finished loading so the javascript hasn’t put the focus in the word box. The result is that half the word is missing when the focus finally goes in there and I have to start over. In those cases, I expect the average time jumps up to more like 10-12 seconds. This is also annoying.

Enter Average time per lookup using the above method is 3 seconds. There are no ads. The instant step 2 is done and I start typing, the text box has focus and in under a second after hitting enter the definition is displayed. Beautiful. Plus, I can separate multiple words by commas and get more than one definition at a time, saving me from repeating steps 1 and 2.

Unlike, ninjawords uses Wiktionary. So no longer do I have the research potential of seeing the Indo-European roots of words and there is always the potential for vandalism to seep in and corrupt a particular definition, though that has a low probability. If I need definitions with authority, I can always resort to If I need them with speed for use in fast-paced settings (like in the middle of an IM session), I can use ninjawords.