Linguification of the month

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Thomas Friedman, who has run out of cab drivers to talk with, is turning to lexicography — "Four Words Going Bye-Bye", 5/20/2014:

The more I read the news, the more it looks to me that four words are becoming obsolete and destined to be dropped from our vocabulary. And those words are “privacy,” “local,” “average” and “later.” A lot of what drives today’s news derives from the fact that privacy is over, local is over, average is over and later is over.

Back in July of 2006, Geoff Pullum coined the word linguify: "To linguify a claim about things in the world is to take that claim and construct from it an entirely different claim that makes reference to the words or other linguistic items used to talk about those things, and then use the latter claim in a context where the former would be appropriate."

I doubt that the concepts behind “privacy,” “local,” “average” and “later" are becoming obsolete. But whatever happens to the concepts, I'm highly confident that the words “privacy,” “local,” “average” and “later" are not about "to be dropped from our vocabulary". I hereby offer to make a bet with Thomas Friedman on this question.

As a proxy for "our vocabulary" we can use the words in the NYT online archive. And as a measure for "destined to be dropped from our vocabulary", we can use the change in relative frequency over the next five years, with "destined to be dropped" defined as "decreased in relative frequency by at least 50%". As for the amount of the bet, I suggest 5% of the loser's income for the previous year.

Some details remain to be negotiated, such as how to combine results across the four words. I await Mr. Friedman's response.


  1. MattF said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 7:34 am

    I can see how Friedman's blather might be of interest to linguistics professionals, but the real question about the piece is whether it means anything at all. I vote 'no.'

    [(myl) The question I was trying to explore, in a jokey way, is whether Thomas Friedman thinks that his article means anything much at all.]

  2. Captain Bringdown said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 8:39 am

    The next six months will prove critical in determining whether these words go bye-bye or not.

    [(myl) Not really. But if these words are all "over", and "destined to be dropped from our vocabulary", we should see some short-term decline in usage, right? For example, I predict that use of "Iraq" and "Bush" in the NYT archive has done up and down relatively rapidly, easily measured on a six-month time scale, as their referents waxed and waned in the public consciousness.

    Still, I'd accept a revision of the bet to track usage frequency over a longer period. Or we could compare the next six months to trends over the past decade. Or, maybe, there's no point because the whole idea is meaningless?]

  3. Theophylact said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 8:57 am

    I saw what you did there, Captain Bringdown.

  4. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 9:18 am

    Why am I tempted to leave out the "a" in "linguification"?

    If Capt. B. was making a joke, can someone explain it to dense people like me?

  5. Captain Bringdown said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 9:23 am

    Jerry Friedman,

    See Theophylact's link above.

  6. Jerry "No Relation" Friedman said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 9:37 am

    Ah, so it's not just density but color-blindness. Thanks for pointing out that there was a link.

  7. Lane said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 9:57 am

    You're making a category error by assuming Friedman is attempting to make a falsifiable factual claim of any kind. He's mostly just a very bad prose poet, trying to string some words together interestingly. A colleague of mine once said perceptively that he clearly had some creative writing teacher tell him "be original!", and he took this to the level of his famously bad metaphor-mongering.

    Underneath, there is either no content at all, or theses so blindingly obvious ("the world is ever more globalized!") that his ability to spin them into fame and fortune is a special kind of genius.

  8. Guy said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 12:07 pm

    Since I assume you are aware that this is not meant literally, and I'm guessing your point is that the figurative language is poor prose (and at least in this instance, I'm inclined to agree with you) I don't understand why your comments are simply limited to pointing out that it's ridiculous if interpreted literally. That can be done wih any figurative language. Is there a particular reason why you think it's more effective here than elsewhere? Do you think, for example, that this figurative usage is less marked in a way that it might blur the line between figurative and literal language, for example that some might view it as a sort of hyperbole rather than a usage somewhat related to metonymy?

    Jerry Friedman, I think it depends on whether you conceive of it as the process or the product of the process, it's similar semantically (but syntactically) to "building" as a gerund and "building" as in "office building". A more parallel example might be "construction", in similar senses.

  9. Guy said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 12:21 pm

    Jerry Friedman,

    Or, you were asking something else entirely and my reading comprehension is terrible.

  10. BobW said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 1:57 pm

    @Lane – so this falsifiable stuff, do we have to bring Popper into this too? Everyone form a large circle. In Vienna.

  11. Brett said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 3:04 pm

    @BobW: Should we set up along die Ringstrasse?

  12. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 23, 2014 @ 8:58 pm

    Guy: If I did think you were more to blame than me, this would hardly be the time to say so.

  13. Keith said,

    May 24, 2014 @ 3:42 am

    My almost-teenage daughter will still tell me she needs her privacy when she retreats into her bedroom.

    I'll still meet my friends for a pint in our local.

    Pollsters and journalists will still want to know the views of the average voter and parents will still compare their kids' test scores to the class and year average.

    And six months later, there will be no change.

    Aside from that, what's this nonsense about Friedman's taxi driver? How can it be asserted that he was “a young, French-speaking African”?

    This implies three things:
    – firstly that Friedman can correctly identify French speakers.
    – secondly that Friedman can correctly identify Africans.
    – thirdly, that both Barret writing in the CJR and Friedman are scrupulously honest and are relating a true story, not some invented parable.

    But Friedman cannot correctly identify French speakers, since he declares that he could not know what the taxi driver's was about “for all I know [the] driver was talking to his parents in Africa.” But he doesn't know with whom the driver was talking, nor about what.

    I've never met anybody who announced himself as being African. All the Africans I've met have announced the country or city they come from; Burkina, Lagos, Bloemfontein, etc.

    So you know, I'm beginning to think that this trip in a taxi with the “young, French-speaking African” never really occurred.

  14. Hans said,

    May 24, 2014 @ 4:09 pm

    @Keith: You know, it's not exactly important what the taxi river identified himself as; if he said he was from Ouagadougou, Friedman might still call him "French speaking African" to make things easier to his readers. Not that I put too much faith in anything Friedman might write.

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