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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‘Not a word’ prolly ain’t an argument anyways

February 4, 2014

A trio of tweets to introduce the topic:

My question about dictionaries was paired with this snapshot of the @nixicon Twitter account, about which more below:

Barack Obama use of madder - young people and dictionaries

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On privilege-checking and amazey amazeballs

January 16, 2014

I have two new posts to report at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. First: Check your privilege and know thy selfie offers some thoughts on the words and phrases of 2013. It includes my own pick, because X, which anticipated the American Dialect Society’s selection.

The focus, though, is on privilege-checking, a phrase that didn’t feature in other WOTY discussions, and remains niche, but whose emergence I’ve found especially interesting:

[C]heck your privilege, described as “one of the great political rallying cries of 2013”, is increasingly used in debates about social justice and power, typically directed at people who are saying something from a position of unconscious privilege.

For example, a middle-class white male might remark on how little abuse there is in social media, not having realised or enquired about its extent for people in less socially powerful positions: he has failed to check his privilege. As the Geek Feminism Wiki puts it, a privileged person “is not necessarily prejudiced (sexist, racist, etc) as an individual, but may be part of a broader pattern of *-ism even though unaware of it”.

Read the rest for further notes on privilege-checking and more familiar WOTY candidates like selfie and -splaining.

*

Is ‘amazeballs’ still amaze? considers a word perhaps more loathed than loved but which shows no immediate signs of going away – indeed, the BBC called it one of 2013’s most overused words.

The BBC article quotes lexicographer Ian Brookes as saying, ‘You know a word has arrived in language when people use it without needing to explain it’ – but in this case I think most people knew what amazeballs meant the first time they heard it. It’s pretty self-explanatory, as are other amaze- coinages like amazetastic, amazetabulous, and amazeroonie (in decreasing order of Google hit count).

The short adjectival form amaze – which gave rise to the neologisms above – also remains common, and is a good example of conversion or zero derivation, where a word’s grammatical category is changed without altering the spelling. Amazeballs and company all testify to our love of language play, and specifically the fun of new words.

Odder even than the word’s productiveness in the linguistic domain is the (true) story of Kellogg’s and Tim Burgess, which I summarise in the post. For older articles you can browse the archives.


Book review: ‘Phubbing All Over The World’ by Hugh Westbrook

January 13, 2014

Phubbing All Over The World: The Words of 2013 is a book by Hugh Westbrook about the neologisms and usages that made headlines in the last 12 months. Over 100-odd short pages, Westbrook repurposes posts from his blog Wordability to tell a story of 2013 in word news – with particular focus on the influence of technology, as in the phubbing of its title (from phone + snubbing).

Westbrook is a journalist who tracks and analyses innovative vocabulary. He is generally well-disposed towards new words, recognising them as signs of a language in good health. His approval isn’t universal, though: he disapproves of Thanksgivukkah and charity-inspired blends like Dryathlon and Stoptober. (I don’t see any harm in them, incidentally – nor the “idiocy” he sees in the Movember event.)

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Link love: language (58)

October 20, 2013

A quick roundup of links on language, words, and linguistics in the news and around the web over the last few weeks (plus one or two from the archives):

The linguistics of ventriloquism.

Exclamation marks in graphic design.

Linguistic maps of the world, 1741.

A monumental curse.

The importance of paragraphs.

Is this what Proto-Indo-European sounded like?

Cute little Cholera Plague: the worst baby names in history.

Ironic dictionary of literary terms.

Rickrolling in Klingon.

Jigsaw family.

A tip-top primer on reduplication.

Joseph Stalin’s passion for editing.

A lingua-licious tour of libfixes.

On anchor(man) vs. news reader.

Do marmosets take turns to communicate?

[Update: more on marmoset conversation from Margaret Wilson.]

Is it wrong to put two spaces after a full stop? (My thoughts on this.)

Dog fooding, yak shaving: hacker terms for Ada Lovelace Day.

How old is TGIF?

The rise of the text tattoo.

On criticising “poor grammar”.

A hithertofore unrecognised neologism.

Words through which the root curr- courses.

How early modern English grammar differs from today’s.

Why dictionaries define words everyone supposedly knows.

Holy Sh*t and the history of swearing (book review).

The Seeing Speech phonetics project.

Are poisonous and venomous mutually distinct?

BuzzFeed and Duolingo are crowdsourcing translation.

The Chicago Manual of Style chats with Ben Zimmer.

Accent discrimination in the UK.

Linguistic ruin? LOL! A study of teens’ instant messaging language (PDF).

The poetics of babytalk (PDF).

Are Elvish, Klingon, Na’vi and Dothraki real languages?

[language links archive]

Sombunall coinages become cult words

October 3, 2013

Since I have neologisms on the brain, I got to thinking of one coined by Robert Anton Wilson (in his book The New Inquisition, as far as I know): sombunall, meaning “some but not all”. Wilson intended it as “semantic hygiene”, a neo-Whorfian corrective to dangerous generalisation, or a sort of epistemological buffer.

The word hasn’t caught on widely. Google hits aren’t much of a metric, but sombunall’s count of <7.5k (when last I looked) shows its relative obscurity; on the OneLook dictionary aggregator only Urban Dictionary features it (nothing in the unabridged OED or Merriam-Webster). Maybe because some but not all isn’t so unwieldy in the first place, and plain old some does solid work albeit without explicitly emphasising the not-all bit.

Sombunall words are created equalI included sombunall in an early language-links post, but never adopted it habitually myself. Because of its limited use, the word remains strongly associated with Wilson, as do its relative mosbunall (“most but not all”) and the Discordian in-joke fnord, among others. This RAW fan site, for instance, is subtitled “Sombunall things Robert Anton Wilson”.

Reading Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation, I came across one occasion when it would have been very convenient to have sombunall available in general circulation. From the short essay on Simone Weil:

Yet so far as we love seriousness, as well as life, we are moved by it, nourished by it. In the respect we pay to such lives, we acknowledge the presence of mystery in the world — and mystery is just what the secure possession of the truth, an objective truth, denies. In this sense, all truth is superficial; and some (but not all) distortions of the truth, some (but not all) insanity, some (but not all) unhealthiness, some (but not all) denials of life are truth-giving, sanity-producing, health-creating, and life-enhancing.

With his commitment to systematic uncertainty, or perhaps more accurately anti-certainty, Robert Anton Wilson would, I think, have enjoyed those lines. I have sombunall faith in this assumption, of course.


‘Ineptnorant’ and other neologifications

September 26, 2013

Ralph Keyes has an enjoyable essay on neologisms at the American Scholar, analysing the factors in their success or failure and sharing some facts surprising to me, such as that Thomas Jefferson coined indescribable and neologize, and that negawatt began life as a typo – showing how happenstance and error are underacknowledged sources of new words.

He says one reason fanciful coinages catch on is that their inventors think them “so absurd that no one will adopt them, little realizing that this is just the type of neologism we covet”. Duly encouraged, I set to work when recently asked if there’s an adjective for when someone “can’t do [something,] therefore [doesn’t] understand when it’s done properly and when it’s not”.

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