Billary, blankie, locavore: English gone wild (2008)

Billary, blankie, locavore: English gone wild

The world’s dominant language is nearing the million mark, but should they all count?


Are you a locavore who decries the tapafication of restaurants or a latte liberal on the fence about Billary?

No matter, the explosion of new words in the English language is enough to make you want to bury your head under a blankie or run off to Godzone.

English always has been something of a mongrel language, but thanks to e-mail and the Internet, the spread of English around the world, and a playful response to changing times, new words and phrases are cropping up so quickly that one language watcher calculates that English is bearing down on a milestone — its one-millionth word.

“English is like an open language that absorbs every type of word from all different languages,” said Paul Payack, who runs Global Language Monitor, a website and language consulting business. “English is a people’s language. It grows from the ground up.”

Payack, whose web-based word-watching started in 1999 with the site, figures there are about 995,000 words in the English language. Sometime this year, he forecasts, the mother tongue of Shakespeare will tip over the seven-figure mark.

By contrast, Payack says, Spanish has about 275,000 words, and French only about 100,000.

Using a series of mathematical formulas, Payack tracks new words as they crop up in databases of printed materials, such as major newspapers and magazines, and on the Internet.

If the number of citations reaches what Payack considers a critical mass, he adds the word to his master lexicon, which he compiled by assembling the word lists of about a dozen major English dictionaries, such as the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster’s unabridged dictionary.

Among his recent additions are “bagonize,” to describe the agonizing feeling of waiting for your luggage at an airport baggage carousel, and “smirting,” the combination of smoking and flirting that takes place in doorways in an era when indoor smoking is increasingly taboo.

But not every would-be word makes the cut. He recently tested “nakation,” a vacation where clothing is optional. Google turned up 34 references. “That would not make it as a word,” he said. Scholars and dictionary editors cast doubt on Payack’s methods and say that an accurate word count is impossible. But they agree that English has word-spinning built into its DNA.

The language has Germanic origins, but French was grafted onto it when the French-speaking Normans conquered England in 1066. During the Renaissance, Latin words became the vogue, and as the British empire spread around the globe, its colonies contributed their own distinctive flavours to the language of the rulers.

“More than half of our vocabulary is from other cultures,” said Allan Metcalf, an English professor at MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Ill., and the executive secretary of the American Dialect Society, which chose “subprime” as the 2007 word of the year. “So we are used to words from a lot of languages, and we’re used to a lot of new words coming in.”

It also helps that English, reflecting the free-market leanings of England and America, has no official gatekeeper, such as the Academie francaise, which keeps French officially pure of foreign — and especially Anglo-American — influences.

But Payack believes the creation of new words has sped up in recent decades in part because of the rapid growth in the number of people who speak English as either a first or second language. He puts the number at 1.35 billion.

And non-native speakers are every bit as likely to coin new words and phrases as native speakers.

“Studies show that when kids learn English in Singapore, they think they own the language,” said the San Diego-based Payack. “They take it, they twist it.”

That has given rise to the phenomenon of “Chinglish,” a Chinese-English hybrid that yields such coinages as “no noising” for “quiet, please,” and “airline pulp” for “airline food.”

Chief among the skeptics who dismiss the countdown to the millionth word is Jesse Sheidlower, editor-at-large for the Oxford English Dictionary, which is widely regarded as the most authoritative compilation of English words.

“I think it’s nonsense,” he said. “People don’t agree on what a word is.”

The Global Language Monitor, he continued, is “counting something very exactly that simply cannot be counted very exactly.”

Are all forms of the verb “run” counted as separate words? What about numbers?

“If you were to count every number between zero and 999,999 as a word, you’d have a cool million right there,” he wrote in an article on Slate last year.

Payack counters that he counts only “head words,” or the main forms of a word. “Run” is in, “ran” is an also-ran.

“We count the number of stars, we count the amount of carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere, we count how many people there are,” said Payack, who also uses his proprietary mathematical formulas to advise businesses on such things as new product names.

“A thought spoken: That’s the old English definition of a word.”


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