In defence of unnecessary words

February 6, 2014

A conservative criticism commonly levelled at new words is that they are “unnecessary” – that we already have a perfectly good and proper word for whatever it is, so why introduce this needless alternative, this objectionable offshoot, this linguistic weed? Because god forbid there should be an overabundance of words. Think of the mess.

Traditionalists decry or resist neologisms they find redundant, those that overlap with existing words rather than fill an obvious gap in the language. There’s simply no need for it, goes the argument. And it’s not just words. New grammatical patterns get the same treatment: after writing about the innovative because X construction, I was told it was ugly and unnecessary.

An aside: Sometimes neologisms are distinguished from nonce-words, words invented for a single occasion or situation. Critics spare these because they’re disposable coinages and not seriously intended as additions to the language. Though sometimes a useful distinction, it’s not always a clear one; in the rapid everyday exchange of language, no one knows what will catch on.

Tom Gauld - cartoon for the Guardian on neologisms and forgotten words[Cartoon by Tom Gauld for the Guardian]

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Children’s awareness of irregular verbs

August 13, 2012

I’ve been enjoying Steven Pinker’s Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language (1999). More technical and focused than his popular bestseller The Language Instinct, it is effectively a monograph on linguistic irregularity, examining in particular how we inflect verbs for past tense and plurality, and what the exceptions can tell us about the structure of language and our minds.

In chapter 7, ‘Kids Say the Darnedest Things’, Pinker points out that children sometimes know that the mistakes they make are mistakes. He cites Dan Slobin and Tom Bever, psycholinguists who inserted their children’s speech errors into their own speech and recorded the results:

TOM: Where’s Mommy?
CHILD: Mommy goed to the store.
TOM: Mommy goed to the store?
CHILD: NO! (annoyed) Daddy, I say it that way, not you.

CHILD: You readed some of it too . . . she readed all the rest.
DAN: She read the whole thing to you, huh?
CHILD: Nu-uh, you read some.
DAN: Oh, that’s right, yeah, I readed the beginning of it.
CHILD: Readed? (annoyed surprise) Read! (pronounced rĕd)
DAN: Oh yeah, read.
CHILD: Will you stop that, Papa?

Pinker infers from this, and from the evidence of more controlled studies, that children know irregular forms better than we might suppose; as they progressively master these forms, their errors are “slip-ups in which they cannot slot an irregular form into a sentence in real time”. Adults make similar slips, though nowhere near as often.

The main points of Words and Rules are set out in a short lecture (PDF) of the same name, while the London Review of Books has a critical review by Charles Yang.

The monstrous indecency of hybrid etymology

November 28, 2011

The word hybrid (from Latin hybrida, “mongrel”) commonly refers to animals and plants of mixed lineage, and more recently to vehicles with two or more power sources. In linguistic morphology it refers to a word formed by combining elements that originated in two or more languages. The process is called hybridization.

Many new words arise through compounding and affixation, and a lot of roots and affixes in English derive from Latin or Greek — sometimes indirectly, such as through French. (Classical compounds are a related source of new vocabulary, but they are of a “purer” strain than hybrids and need not concern us here.)

There is a tendency for like to join with like, but because affixes from other languages are so well-established in English, and their origins are not widely known, etymological affinity is not routinely observed when words are formed. English has always added foreign bits to native bits, and both to other foreign bits. It does this in its sleep.

Hybrids are ubiquitous: they “luxuriate in the English word-garden”, as Simeon Potter put it. A familiar example is television, which (via French) yokes Greek tele- “far” to Latin visio “seeing”. Neuroscience joins Greek neuro- “nerve” to science, from Latin scientia “knowledge”. Other hybrids include automobile, hypercorrectionlovable, merriment, monolingual, sociology, and talkative.

Frankenstein’s monster reads a hybrid word and collapses in a daze; Dr F. flees in fright and disgust.

Purists used to complain about hybrids as if it were somehow unsavoury to fuse morphemes from different languages. Maybe this attitude owed something to a fastidious temperament and a bias for classical learning. Jan Freeman, writing about these Frankenwords, said that “usage gurus who could flaunt their Greek and Latin did, and those who couldn’t copied them.”

Eric Partridge, in Usage and Abusage, said neologisms should avoid “unseemly misalliance” and pay heed to “etymological decency”. Ralcy Husted Bell called jeopardize “a monster”, which seems a bit harsh. These phrases give the impression that hybrids are malformed abominations, hideous chimeras to be shunned and disowned.

In their influential King’s English, the Fowler brothers object to amoral on the grounds that a- is Greek, moral is Latin, and it is “desirable that in making new words the two languages should not be mixed”. H. W. Fowler later compiled the following “ill-favoured list, of which all readers will condemn some, & some all”:

amoral, amusive, backwardation, bi-daily, bureaucracy, cablegram, climactic, coastal, colouration, dandiacal, floatation, funniment, gullible, impedance, pacifist, racial, sendee, speedometer

Several are so commonplace that it’s hard to imagine them bothering anyone; others never caught on. Often it seems to be the newness wherein lies the main trouble: rarely is there a problem with well-established hybrids. On this point, Robert Burchfield found that “the arguments apply only to words formed in the 19C. and 20C.”

Fowler believed that word-making,

like other manufactures, should be done by those who know how to do it; others should neither attempt it for themselves, nor assist the deplorable activities of amateurs by giving currency to fresh coinages before there has been time to test them.

But even if we were to deny ourselves the natural, playful urge to neologise, who would do the testing to which Fowler refers? An elite cadre of grammarians and grammaticasters, or the general population whose language it equally is? Again I find myself siding with Burchfield, in his New Fowler’s Modern English Usage:

Homogeneity of language origin comes low in [language users’] ranking of priorities; euphony, analogy, a sense of appropriateness, an instinctive belief that a word will settle in if there is a need for it and will disappear if there is not — these are the factors that operate when hybrids (like any other new words) are brought into the language.

This to me is a more sane and tolerant stance, free of purist dogma and control-freakery. Rejecting hybrids in English just because their parts’ ancient origins don’t match is pointless peevery. Bryan Garner, in his Dictionary of Modern American Usage, writes that nowadays “only a few Classics professors” object to them. Let us be thankful for that.

My only regret is that hybrid is not a hybrid and so does not describe itself the way portmanteau does. But it’s probably too late to do anything about that.


Updates: Ben Zimmer has drawn my attention to a T-shirt with the text: “Polyamory is wrong! It is either multiamory or polyphilia but mixing Greek and Latin roots? Wrong!”

Ben quotes a similar joke from Tom Stoppard’s play The Invention of Love: “Homosexuality? What barbarity! It’s half Greek and half Latin!”

This post also appears on the Visual Thesaurus.
[Frankenstein image from Wikimedia Commons]

Absoposilutely infixed

October 7, 2011

Affixes are normally added to the start or end of a word, where they’re called prefixes and suffixes, respectively. But sometimes they appear in the middle, as infixes. (There are several other categories of affix.)

Infixation in English is often jocular or playful, as in “Homer-ic” edumacation, or Ned-Flandersy scrum-diddly-umptious, where diddly is infixed and um is reduplicated. (If you’re unfamiliar with reduplication, you might want to click that link for a summary: it’s relevant to what follows.)

Another familiar form of infixation is expletive infixation, as in absofuckinglutely, where the infix serves to intensify the expression. Less rude is absobloodylutely, and milder still but retaining the structure is absoposilutely, which borrows posi from positively.

Song Kang-ho in Thirst (2009)

I didn’t expect to see absoposilutely in the subtitles of a Korean horror film, but there it was. It seems unlikely that it was used as a straightforward synonym for absolutely. It made me wonder whether Korean has an analogous system of emphatic infixation, or what kind of morphological construction the translation might have served to suggest.

I know very little about the Korean language, but I found an interesting paper, Hyung-Soo Kim’s “A new look at partial reduplication in Korean” (PDF), that discusses “the problem of having to accept infixation only in partial reduplication in Korean because there is no evidence for infixation elsewhere in Korean morphology.”

So a partial answer to my question is that Korean doesn’t appear to have infixation,* but it does have internal partial reduplication, an instance of which may have been what was translated into absoposilutely in the film subtitles. But that last part’s a guess.

For more on the use and variety of affixes, see my post “Morphogasmic affixation” and the links therein. You might also enjoy John J. McCarthy’s “Prosodic structure and expletive infixation” (PDF), which characterises expletive infixes according to metric phonology – that is, it offers an explanation for why we tend to say absofuckinglutely rather than abfuckingsolutely or absolutefuckingly. If we say it at all.

* Other sources I looked at include Jongho Jun, “Variable affix position in Korean partial reduplication” (PDF); Alan C. L. Yu, “A Natural History of Infixation” (PDF); and a few items on Google Books. [Edit: I removed a quote from Hyung-Soo Kim’s paper because it didn't really serve the purposes of this post.]

The green stuff

July 11, 2011

If you’re a regular visitor, you might know that I’ve been writing weekly posts at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. June was Green English month – that is, the language of the environment and all things eco-friendly – so a few of my recent posts focused on this.

First up, “It will all come out in the greenwash” looks at some of the jargon that has emerged from the green movement, such as greentailing, greenwashing, and eco-bling:

Some companies are unscrupulous about jumping on the green bandwagon in an effort to boost their profits. This has given rise to the term greenwash – formed by analogy with whitewash. Just as whitewash indicates greater concern with appearance than with what lies beneath, and indicates attempts to cover up incriminatory facts, so greenwash refers to superficial activities intended to show concern about the environment and distract from damage being done.

As Kerry Maxwell points out in her BuzzWord article, greenwash has been around since the early 1990s, and its use has spread from advertising contexts to political and personal ones. [more]

In “Have I seen you be -vore?”, I examine the -vore suffix, which comes from French -vore, from Latin -vorous, from vorare (devour, swallow quickly) and with which we’re familiar from words such as herbivore, carnivore, and omnivore. This pattern is greatly extended in scientific terminology, where we see

words like insectivore, piscivore, nectarivore, frugivore (fruit-eater), detritivore, and granivore (eats seeds, not grandmothers), and their adjectival forms: insectivorous, etc.

In these cases, -vore signals the act of eating, and what precedes it indicates what is eaten. But more recent coinages work differently, signalling a shift (or lapse) in how the suffix is used. One of these is locavore, sometimes localvore. Although superficially it has the same form as the traditional -vore words, it does not work quite the same way: it has nothing to do with eating locals. [more]

Out of the red with the green stuff” takes a different approach to green English by noting the colour’s association with money. Green is where the language of the environment and the language of business overlap, and now it seems

the “green economy” is spreading to unexpected quarters: a recent article in Time magazine reports that Sicily’s mafia want in on the act.

The article discusses clean energy and dirty money, phrases that draw on particular metaphors I’ve written about before. Its title mentions the mafia’s “hunger for power”, a metaphor that refers in this instance to renewable energy but is apt in other ways. For one thing, when we talk about money, we often talk metaphorically about food, as Diane Nicholls’s article shows. Also, Italy is where the Slow Food movement, which promotes green living, is said to have begun. [more]

Finally, in “Cut me some slacktivism” I write about different kinds of modern activism, how online life has affected it, and some of the words used to describe different types of involvement. Among these are astroturfing, clicktivism, hacktivism and slacktivism, the last of which

was formed by blending slacker with activism. Whereas activism is all about active engagement, slacktivists prefer to limit their involvement to the bare minimum. . . .

Given the ease of manipulating online information, underhanded tactics are inevitable. One technique that has attracted a lot of attention is astroturfing. This extends a familiar metaphor: since AstroTurf is fake grass, astroturfing is a fake grass roots campaign. It’s a deceptive form of advocacy that appears as a groundswell of passionate opinion, but is often secretly financed by corporations or other well-organised groups with a vested interest in swaying political policy or the public mood. [more]

You can click here to read previous round-ups of my posts for Macmillan Dictionary Blog, or here to go directly to the archive. (The second link is also in the “Elsewhere” box in the top right-hand corner of this blog.)

Comments, whether here or there, are always welcome.

‘Not a word’ is not an argument

July 12, 2010

“The word is not a clearly definable linguistic unit. . . . what the word is or is not depends ultimately on our total view of grammar.” – Frank Palmer, in Grammar

“Language is a configurable space on the order of a continuum, therefore expandible in any as yet unbroached direction.” – Golem, the great computer in Stanisław Lem’s Imaginary Magnitude

Irregardless, supposably, ain’t, impactful, unfriend, defriend, guesstimate, disincentivise, menteeprobletunity, orientate, loginned… Do these words make you twitchy? Would you say some of them are not words?

Orientate is probably less reviled, but some people still reject its lexical status. On Not Exactly Rocket Science, a blog at Discover Magazine, writer Ed Yong began a recent post about avian magnetoreception with the following line:

Some birds can sense the Earth’s magnetic field and orientate themselves with the ease of a compass needle.

He goes on to describe how robins “orientated themselves” (simple past tense) under controlled conditions and “became disorientated” (participial adjective) if their right eye was covered. It’s fascinating research, and Yong does an admirable job of explaining the science behind the remarkable phenomenon of magnetoreception, but I want to focus on the bizarre and hostile reaction to his use of the word orientate. The second comment to his post is:

‘Orientate’ is not a word.

Just like that. Never mind how birds see magnetic fields — orientate is “not a word”. Comment number 8 goes beyond flat dismissal to outright abuse, calling orientate and disorientate “simply moronic”. This commenter, who uses the anonymous but revealing name “Jocular Pedant”, elaborates as follows:

Constructing a word with additional unnecessary syllables is ALWAYS awkward, and is never the preferred usage, no matter what country you are from.

This, in case you’re wondering, is rubbish. To cite one example, which was supplied in a subsequent comment: the trisyllabic burglarize is preferred to the tidy burgle in American English.

A post I wrote last year about the differences and similarities between orient and orientate shows that despite being widely censured in AmE, orientate is standard in BrE, has been around since the mid-19thC, and has been used by careful writers for decades.

But history and sense are rarely allowed to interfere with peeving. By comment 17, Ed Yong has had enough:

Robins can literally see magnetic fields with their right eye, and some people are more interested in discussing the usage of orient vs. orientate. This is like standing with one’s back at a sunset in order to stare at one’s shoes.

In his position, I’d have been impatient with some of the comments too. I wouldn’t compare an interest in usage with staring at one’s shoes instead of a sunset, but I don’t think this is quite what he meant: Ed told me by email that he finds linguistics fascinating, and that he’s happy to have errors pointed out — but not to be told he’s wrong when he has used an accepted usage, and when erroneous nitpicking hinders discussion of exciting scientific research.



If you see or hear someone reject a word by saying it’s “not a word”, you can reasonably assume that they mean it’s not a word they like, not a word they would use, not a word in standard usage, not a word in a certain dictionary, not a suitable word for the context, and so on. There’s a difference, and it matters.

In a rousing rant at Language Log some years ago, linguist Arnold Zwicky emphatically denounced this form of dogma:

I’ve been hearing this “not a word” bullshit since I was a kid, usually applied to non-standard ain’t and taboo fuck . . . . It mystified me then, and it angers me now. It’s (literally) superhyperbolic, two steps of exaggeration beyond reality, and it’s insulting.

If you’re thinking, “superhyperbolic isn’t a word”, you’re losing ground. Take a deep breath, then take irregardless. Some people will tell you it’s not a word, but of course it is; it’s just currently non-standard. A word might be considered awkward, confusing, silly, or likely to discredit its user, but these criticisms warrant reasoned arguments to back them up, not dictatorial denial. I don’t care for irregardless, but I’ll defend its right to be said.

Along similar lines, a more elaborate web page is ‘“Login” is not a verb’. Again, login is not a verb I would use — log in seems better formed and less susceptible to problems with conjugation — but absolute pronouncements on what is or isn’t a verb are ill-judged, because every word can potentially be verbed. For a more nuanced and commonsensical look at login as a verb, see Mark Liberman’s dose of perspective that’s in striking contrast to the peevers’ invective:

I probably wouldn’t use “loginned” or “loginning” myself, but not much in the fate of the world seems to depend on the question of whether these usages catch on or not.

The not-a-verb template is extended here. Readers are introduced to a list of other “words that are not verbs”, and are invited to “pick one of the non-verbs about which this site knows”. I can’t decide whether this phrase is deliberately ungainly or a good example of how people forsake clarity to avoid breaking what they imagine to be important grammatical rules (in this case stranding a preposition). As I’ve shown before, automatic deference to dubious pseudo-rules is associated with substandard prose and a penchant for dogma.

The “not a word” brigade are legion. Browsing the internet, I see countless examples of peeving, pouting and petulant proscribing: ain’t is “not a word”; funnest, “not a word”; mentee, umm, anyways, misremembered, even blog: “not a word”. These judgements are sometimes underlined with definitely, obviously and their weasely ilk. Weaselly, if you prefer; both are words!

There’s a Facebook group called Chillax is not a word for a reason (“Chillax promises to be the new milleniums [sic] most embarrassing invention”), and one called Guesstimate is Not a Word — for “the enlightened class of people who realize that there is no middle ground between a guess and an estimate”.

That sudden whiff in the air is not the subtle aroma of enlightenment.

Word aversion and word hatred are an aesthetic indulgence; word denial is a different beast. Why the cranky resolve to outlaw disliked words? From what imaginary realm do people conjure the authority to decide what’s acceptable? And how do peevers cope with the Nadsat in Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, the Newspeak in Orwell’s 1984, or the idiosyncratic hyperinvention of Joyce’s later novels, to name just a few well-known literary examples?

Wordnik, by contrast, has “all the words”. Type in a clump of letters, be it a valid construction or not, and you’ll arrive at a page for that word. If you enter a made-up word, you’re unlikely to find information on it, and it probably won’t become part of the common lexicon, but who knows. In a casual conversation last night I used the word judgy, meaning judgemental. I’d never used or thought of it before; it just came out mid-sentence and made convenient sense (I hope). Nor, having said it, did I think I was the first to use it, and I’m happy to confirm this. Whimsical affixation comes naturally to us, and the effects can be morphogasmic.

Neologisms, jargon, and words that shift function (e.g. verbings) attract particular condemnation. New words can seem ugly, pointless, or ridiculous at first, but over time, many have snuck into standard usage. I’m not arguing for the default acceptance of all newcomers, but by tolerating them long enough to assess them without prejudice, we can reorient(ate) ourselves to new linguistic possibilities. Peevers: criticise pet-hate words if you must, but don’t assume that you’re right and that people who use them are lesser beings. Repressive lexi-quibbling overlooks the fact that language is fiercely playful and productive. It invites our creativity. Wordnik’s Erin McKean put it succinctly: “If it seems wordish, use it.”

* * *


Johnson, the excellent language blog at The Economist, has followed up on this post, noting my “defiant evocation of Evelyn Beatrice Hall” and explaining that The Economist maintains a strict style guide primarily for consistency and because expressions in new or niche usage might not be understood by a wider audience. This makes perfect sense. I’m fully in favour of style guides: they promote a degree of internal uniformity that helps reduce both confusion in readers and headaches in editors. Incidentally, you can compare advice between various style guides on this handy website.

Johnson finds that I “[skate] over the fact that such debates are most often just a proxy for ad hominem attacks”; that “when people criticise non-words, it’s usually just a lazy way to criticise their users”. Fair point, though I don’t know if I agree with the “usually” bit. I’ve ranted along these lines before — such as in this post about peeving and its possible motivations, where I investigated the odd and anti-social compulsion to nitpick strangers’ language, and suggested that dubious usage advice springs from laziness, triumphalism, social anxiety and snobbery, automatic deference to tradition, and so forth. Some of that might apply to the not-a-word crew too.

Finally, at least for now, Johnson wrote a subsequent post in which it describes Wordnik memorably as “the dictionary of pure existence”, a site that provides “a wonderful view of what a living, breathing thing the English language is”. Maybe it’s not a word, but to this I say: +1.

Mark Peters, in GOOD magazine, concurs:

Even if a word bugs the living crap out of you, it’s still a word. Just ignore the small percentage of words that are annoying and focus on the enormous, fertile possibilities of English to create new words in any given situation or sentence. The fertility of English should be enjoyed.

Update, Feb. 2013:

Revisiting this post a few years later, I find a lot of it holds up but I think I erred on the side of leniency. So I’ve written a little more on the topic, in ‘Not a word’ prolly ain’t an argument anyways:

Typos can become real words, as teh and pwn did, but more usually production errors are too infrequent to become even quasi-normal. A string like, say, errorw is not a proper word, and whether it’s “real” is a semantic/ontological side-issue. Qkrghrbgyw is not a word and is unlikely ever to be.

[Cartoons by Hans Stengel and Doug Savage; more on avian magnetoreception & peevology.]

If you hate “bureaucracy”, please fill out this form

April 15, 2010

The word bureaucracy comes from the French bureaucratie, a spelling that was also used in English for a time but is now obsolete. Einstein described bureaucracy as “the death of all sound work”, and the word’s connotations remain negative today. It has become a byword for excessive administrative red tape and institutional rigidity.

Bureaucracy evokes the high degree of hierarchical organisation to be found in a filing cabinet or storage office, i.e. in a bureau. Its representatives even gave rise to a kind of jargon: bureaucratese. Bureaucracy reminds me of Dilbert, Kafka, Orwell, Brazil, and a job I had lifetimes ago that required every action, item, and action item to be signed and dated — including signatures and dates. On that note, here’s a clip from Brazil:

The familiarity of bureaucracy overshadows its unusual morphology, which drew objections long before the word accrued its current pejorative associations. Added to the French base bureau is the suffix -cracy, from Greek -kratia, from kratos: strength, power, authority. So bureaucracy retained the French -eau- in its middle instead of adopting the usual linking -o- (democracy, technology). This awkward structure attracted fierce criticism from H.W. & F.G. Fowler:

The termination -cracy is now so freely applied that it is too late to complain of this except on the ground of ugliness. It may be pointed out, however, that the very special ugliness of bureaucracy is due to the way its mongrel origin is flaunted in our faces by the telltale syllable -eau-; it is to be hoped that formations similar in this respect may be avoided. (The King’s English)

Henry Watson Fowler, the elder brother, repeated his disdain in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage:

bureaucrat, etc. The formation is so barbarous that all attempt at self-respect in pronunciation may perhaps as well be abandoned. . . . it is better to give the whole thing up, & pretend that -eau- is the formative -o- that ordinarily precedes -crat &c.; all is then plain sailing; it is only to be desired that the spelling could also be changed to burocrat &c.

“Special ugliness”, “mongrel”, “barbarous” — one can almost feel Fowler’s blood pressure rising at these words’ very existence. Malformed they might be, but bureaucrat and bureaucracy are perfectly respectable — unlike the common misspelling beaurocrat, which adopts the middle -o- that Fowler desired, but promotes the -eau- instead of dropping it. I have also come across beauracracy and bureauacracy, and no doubt there are other freakish forms in use. We may need a bureau to organise them.

How do you feel about bureaucracy and its unvenerable variants?

This post also appears on the Visual Thesaurus.


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