Forbes on neologisms, and the return of the million-word bait-and-switch

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Forbes.com is running a special report on neologisms — a rather peculiar topic for Forbes, I suppose, but they put together a pretty decent lineup of contributors. From the Language Log family there’s John McWhorter and me, with good friends of LL Grant Barrett and Mark Peters also pitching in. There really was no news hook for the report, unless you count the claim by Global Language Monitor that English will be adding its millionth word on April 29, 2009. No, make that June 8. Scratch that, June 10.

Back in January when I wrote "The ‘million word’ hoax rolls along," I observed that Paul Payack of Global Language Monitor had pushed the supposed date for the addition of the millionth English word (according to his secret algorithm) from 2006 to 2007 to 2008 to 2009. Payack was then claiming with pseudo-scientific precision that the millionth word would finally arrive "within a ten-day period centered upon April 29, 2009." That date, conveniently enough, happened to coincide with the publication of the paperback edition of Payack’s book, A Million Words and Counting: How Global English Is Rewriting The World. In the comments, Mr. Payack denied that the new date he had set for the millionth word had anything to do with his publishing schedule, and to his credit he has nipped that criticism in the bud… by extending the deadline yet again.

When the BBC checked in on the million-word claim for a report broadcast on April 22, they discovered that the "ten-day period centered on April 29" prediction had been superseded, just like every other prediction made by Payack since 2006. The BBC gave the new magical date as June 8, 2009, and this is the date that I used when I did some last-minute fact-checking for my Forbes article, which mentions the million-word claim in passing. Then earlier this evening I checked back on the GLM site and discovered that Payack had of course moved the goalposts again: he now announces that "English will cross the Million Word Mark on June 10th, 2009 at 10:22 am (Stratford-on-Avon Time)." And he’s got a countdown clock and everything, so maybe he’s serious this time.

The BBC does at least touch upon the criticism of Payack’s methodology and the constant date-changing of his predictions. But for any other journalists out there who might be lured by the million-word claim as an irresistible news hook, I would direct them to this quote from Mr. Payack from a skeptical Feb. 1 article in The Toronto Star (which opens with the wonderful image of Canadian Oxford Dictionary editor Katherine Barber giggling uncontrollably over the phone):

"You can’t be precise," concedes Payack. "We’re talking from a poet’s perspective. I’m a word lover, not a linguist."

The Star goes on to say that "the whole point, apart from the obvious publicity, is to celebrate the richness of the language." I think we can all get on board with that sentiment, poets and linguists alike, so let’s dispense with the million-word hogwash once and for all, shall we?



8 Comments

  1. Fluxor said,

    April 24, 2009 @ 3:01 am

    The IEEE Spectrum magazine runs a regular bi-monthly article on neologisms in the tech world. Here’s a sample: http://www.spectrum.ieee.org/jun08/6247

  2. Faldone said,

    April 24, 2009 @ 6:35 am

    Unless I’ve lost a finger or two his count down clock puts it on 9 June, not 8 or 10 June.

  3. Achim said,

    April 24, 2009 @ 7:27 am

    @ Faldone: Well, by the time of writing this (1:24 p.m. on April 24, Central European DST), the GLM site says:

    English will cross the Million Word Mark on June 10th, 2009 at 10:22 am (Stratford-on Avon Time)

  4. John said,

    April 24, 2009 @ 8:02 am

    “English will cross the Million Word Mark on June 10th, 2009 at 10:22 am (Stratford-on Avon Time)” Oh come on, he’s clearly taking the piss. Either it’s a running gag or he’s just enjoying himself, but no-one could write that and take it seriously.

    For one thing, everyone knows you can’t coin words before noon. Something about blood flow in Broca’s area.

  5. Dan T. said,

    April 24, 2009 @ 8:13 am

    English speakers are spread out over enough different time zones that I’d expect word-coining proceeds around the clock.

    There’s a certain cognitive dissonance in seeing the same person say “You can’t be precise,” and also giving a time of 10:22 am… and how many milliseconds?

  6. Faldone said,

    April 24, 2009 @ 9:13 am

    OK, I was missing a finger (I use them to count on). It comes out to 2009:06:10:04:22±3dB. the 45 took us to June 8 but I didn’t add up the current time GMT and the extra (as of this morning when I posted before) 17 hours correctly.

    June 10th. Party likes it’s 1066!!

  7. Ellen said,

    April 24, 2009 @ 11:05 am

    John, perhaps that new word will be coined in in India or Australia. ;)

  8. Sili said,

    May 2, 2009 @ 6:16 pm

    John,

    Broca’s area?

    Surely you mean the Crockus!

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