Virus update: one million English words, and counting

The English language received its official unofficial one millionth word this morning at 5:22 a.m. ET. And, just in time for the coming Web 3.0 phenomena, the one millionth word is…wait for it…

Web 2.0.

Of course, “Web 2.0” being crowned the One Millionth English Word, and having the coronation at exactly 5:22 this morning, is just an estimate, made buy a website called the Global Language Monitor, “a Web site that uses a math formula to estimate how often words are created.” I like that: words used to describe a math formula used to estimate how many words there are that could be put to use to describe math formulas that estimate…well, you get the picture.

According to the article today on CNN.com:

[Global Language Monitor] estimates the millionth English word, “Web 2.0” was added to the language Wednesday at 5:22 a.m. ET. The term refers to the second, more social generation of the Internet.

The site says more than 14 words are added to English every day, at the current rate.

The “Million Word March,” however, has made the man who runs this word-counting project somewhat of a pariah in the linguistic community. Some linguists say it’s impossible to count the number of words in a language because languages are always changing, and because defining what counts as a word is a fruitless endeavor.

Paul J.J. Payack, president and chief word analyst for the Global Language Monitor, says, however, that the million-word estimation isn’t as important as the idea behind his project, which is to show that English has become a complex, global language.

“It’s a people’s language,” he said.

Other languages, like French, Payack said, put big walls around their vocabularies. English brings others in.

“English has the tradition of swallowing new words whole,” he said. “Other languages translate.”

Certainly that’s what Wordlab has always been about: swallowing new words whole…and then regurgitating them in new combinations.

Still, Payack says he doesn’t include all new words in his count. Words must make sense in at least 60 percent of the world to be official, he said. And they must make sense to different communities of people. A new technology term that’s only understood in Silicon Valley wouldn’t count as a mainstream word, he said.

His computer models check a total of 5,000 dictionaries, scholarly publications and news articles, as well as billions of Web sites, to see how frequently words are used, he said. A word must make 25,000 appearances to be deemed legitimate.

Payack said news events have also fueled the rapid expansion of English, which he said has more words than any other language. Mandarin Chinese comes in second with about 450,000 words, he said.

English terms like “Obamamania,” “defriend,” “wardrobe malfunction,” “zombie banks,” “shovel ready” and “recessionista” all have grown out of recent news cycles about the presidential election, economic crash, online networking or a sports event, he said. Other languages might not have developed new terms to deal with such phenomena, he said.

That the true beauty and power of English, and its new global function: serving as a language laboratory for the entire world. An interesting corollary question would be how many English words die out every day, week or month? None of these new words get carved in stone, and even the Oxford English Dictionary is filled with many archaic words no longer in use.

Language experts who spoke with CNN said they disapprove of Payack’s count, but they agree that English generally has more words than most, if not all, languages.

“This is stuff that you just can’t count,” said Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary. “No one can count it, and to pretend that you can is totally disingenuous. It simply can’t be done.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has about 600,000 entries, Sheidlower said. But that by no means includes all words, he said.

… Part of what makes determining the number of words in a language so difficult is that there are so many root words and their variants, said Sarah Thomason, president of the Linguistic Society of America and a linguistics professor at the University of Michigan.

… Linguists and lexicographers run into further complications when trying to count words that are spelled one way but can have several meanings, said Allan Metcalf, an English professor at MacMurray College in Illinois, and an officer at the American Dialect Society.

“The word bear, b-e-a-r — is that two words or one, for example? You have a noun that’s a wild creature and then you have b-e-a-r, [which means] to bear left or to bear right, and there’s many other things,” he said. “So you really can’t be exact about a millionth word.”

Can any of these linguists or word-counters bear to get into pun territory? Absolutely each meaning of “bear” and every other word should count as a separate word — again, multiple meanings, puns, homonyms, all are part of what gives the English language so much flavor and customizability (not a word, BTW, according to the OED). Call it Language 2.0 if you must (but really, please don’t — I’m just planting a virus here).

[Payack] said the count is meant to be a celebration of English as a global language. And, while he says other languages are being stamped out by English’s expansion, it’s a powerful thing that so many people today are able to communicate with such a vast list of words.

Here here, brother. As William S. Burroughs famously said, “Language is a virus“. And English, with its metastasizing foam of wordbirth and worddeath, is the smallpox of languages.

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Coining words and the caprice in names

Great little article about word coinage and naming by Steven Pinker in last Sunday’s Los Angeles Times, How do we come up with words? Here is a morsel, about the viral nature of baby names and the human tendency to want to be different, but not too different:

Many people assume these fads are inspired by celebrities (Marilyn Monroe made Marilyn popular) or social trends (biblical names are popular during religious revivals; androgynous names are a legacy of feminism). But sociologist Stanley Lieberson has pored through naming data and disproved every one of these hypotheses. The cause of baby names is other baby names. Parents have an ear for names that are a bit distinctive (as if to follow Sam Goldwyn’s advice not to name your son William because every Tom, Dick and Harry is named William) without being too distinctive (only celebrities can get away with naming their children Moon Unit or Banjo). The trends arise when everyone tries to be moderately distinctive and ends up being moderately distinctive in the same way.

I love that advice from Sam Goldwyn. And that bit about everyone trying to be distinctive but ending up being “moderately distinctive in the same way” reminds me of the clusters of like names we see in nearly every industry. Take SUV names, for instance, where all the automakers tend to promote a “rugged individualist” theme, then serve up the same kind of names for their vehicles, often named to evoke either the idea of exploration — Blazer, Discovery, Expedition, Navigator, Safari, Scout, Tracker, Trooper — or of a mythic rugged western pioneer landscape — Montana, Rainier, Santa Fe, Sequoia, Sonoma, Tacoma, Tahoe, Yukon. So all of you rugged individualists out there looking express your distinctiveness through your choice of ride, these big beasts of cars are betraying that ideal by blending their names in with each other.

Also fascinating in this article is the idea that naming trends cannot be reliably predicted or engineered, because they are dependent upon the behavior of the masses, and that behavior is chaotic:

Pundits often treat a culture as if it were a superorganism that pursues goals and finds meaning, just like a person. But the fortunes of words, a cultural practice par excellence, don’t fit that model. Names change with the times, yet they don’t fulfill needs, don’t reflect other social trends and aren’t driven by role models or Madison Avenue. A “trend” is shorthand for the aggregate effects of millions of people making decisions while anticipating and reacting to the decisions made by others, and these dynamics can be stubbornly chaotic.

This unpredictability holds a lesson for our understanding of culture more generally. Like the words in a language, the practices in a culture — every fashion, ritual, common belief — must originate with an innovator, must then appeal to the innovator’s acquaintances and then to the acquaintance’s acquaintances, until it becomes endemic to a community. The caprice in names suggests we should be skeptical of most explanations for other mores and customs.

Yes. Beware of “expert” opinion that labors to convince you that “scientific” explanations — linguistics, focus groups, trend analysis — trumps good old fashioned meaning, story, history, mythology, poetry, rhythm, and shared knowledge when considering names for companies, products, or services. Anything else is just putting ketchup on a potato bug.

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