End times at hand

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It's almost over. The English Language WordClock is ticking inexorably towards its zero hour early Wednesday morning, marking the imagined birth of the mythical millionth English word. But what will happen then?

The Million Word March FAQ over at the Global Language Monitor is silent on this subject. None of the journalists interviewing Paul Payack, the PR genius behind this exercise, have asked him the simple question, "And then what?"

Mr. Payack has volunteered the opinion that "The million word milestone brings to notice the coming of age of English as the first truly global Language".  But a disturbing tweet from Prof. Warren Rice at Miskatonic Community College warns of a darker possibility:

The millionth word is the key to the gate, whereby the spheres meet. Their hand is at your throats, yet ye see Them not. Our only hope is t

Unfortunately Warren, who was trained in the expository conventions of a more discursive age, reached the 140-character limit before revealing the solution that he had apparently uncovered. And so far, all attempts to contact him again have failed.

While waiting for further word, you may wish to mull over the implications of our earlier coverage, which takes on a darker cast when read in the context of this dire, if fragmentary, warning.

[Update: an email from Dr. Francis Morgan notes an ominous coincidence. He has been engaged for some years in a study of the Mesoamerican Long Count Calendar, and he has concluded that its origin point, the Mayan creation date 4 Ahaw, 8 Kumk'u, has up to now been mis-aligned with modern western calendars by 1,290 days. As a result, instead of corresponding in the Julian calendar to September 6, 3114 BC, the actual date of the Mayan creation was February 24, 3117 BC. And in consequence, the widely-anticipated 13th b'ak'tun of the current era will not end on 12/21/2012, as commonly believed, but rather on 6/10/2009.]

[Update #2 — The Telegraph weighed in this morning, with an article in which the well-known lexicographical journalist Simon Winchester warns us of a possible tie-in with global climate change:

My favourite for years was "mallemaroking", which an early edition [of the OED] defined as "the carousing of drunken seamen aboard ice-bound Greenland whaling ships", which struck me as a masterly example of hairline linguistic precision. But a later edition of the dictionary slightly amended the definition, dropping the location, trimming it to "the carousing of drunken seamen aboard icebound whaling ships".

This prompted a friend to write a tongue-in-cheek polemic: the foul practice of mallemaroking, he declared, appears to have become unleashed from its native Greenland, and now threatens to extend its tentacles across the entire world. Before it is too late, it must be stopped!

Asked about this, Paul Payack of the Global Language Monitor responded "The Great Old Ones are not mocked.  Laugh while you can, monkey boy!"

Although the OED's earliest citation for mallemaroking is from John Dee's  1609 translation of Alhazred, it has rarely been used in the intervening four centuries, with a mere 9,910 hits on Yahoo at the moment, and only 1,520 on Google. Thus web commentary on Winchester's article may well push mallemaroking over the Global Language Monitor's magical threshold of 25,000,  so that it could indeed end up, early Wednesday morning, as the fabled millionth word.  Is this a sinister hint of how the day might end? ]


  1. Sili said,

    June 6, 2009 @ 11:32 am

    Well, luckily blogcomments allow for more elaboration.

    What prof. Rice meant to warn us about is the coming inv

  2. Bob Lieblich said,

    June 6, 2009 @ 11:56 am

    When the millionth English word is reached, construction will begin on a new Tower of Babel, which will rise on the site of the World Trade Center. Soon there will be no English language at all.

    Serves us right.

  3. Austin Smith said,

    June 6, 2009 @ 12:00 pm

    This is absolutely brilliant, and should be submitted to "The Onion". Miskatonic Community College, indeed.

  4. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    June 6, 2009 @ 12:13 pm

    Things get a little clearer once you realize that by "millionth word" Payack means "millionth unbroken sequence of alphabetic characters attested at least 25,000 times on the web". Let's help him along a little: zzzzzzzzzzz zzzzzzzzzzz zzzzzzzzzzz zzzzzzzzzzz zzzzzzzzzzz zzzzzzzzzzz …

  5. Mark Liberman said,

    June 6, 2009 @ 1:51 pm

    Geoffrey K. Pullum: …by "millionth word" Payack means "millionth unbroken sequence of alphabetic characters attested at least 25,000 times on the web". Let's help him along a little: zzzzzzzzzzz zzzzzzzzzzz zzzzzzzzzzz zzzzzzzzzzz zzzzzzzzzzz zzzzzzzzzzz …

    It's touching to see such trust that an actual systematic counting of string-types in web text is taking place. My own guess is that the count-down is what might be called a "faith-based initiative". Meanwhile, as the word-wheels spin in Austin, Ph'nglui mglw'nafh C'thulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn.

  6. Andrej Bjelakovic said,

    June 6, 2009 @ 3:31 pm

    C'thulhu fhtagn!

  7. DW said,

    June 6, 2009 @ 3:44 pm

    I'm still waiting for the millionth English number.

    [(myl) Or the nine billionth name of God. ]

  8. dr pepper said,

    June 6, 2009 @ 5:35 pm

    It would be a strange eon ideed, if new english words were to stop spawning in the abyssal regions of the human brain.

  9. rootlesscosmo said,

    June 6, 2009 @ 5:50 pm

    Our only hope is t

    The complete sentence is "Our only hope is to aaaaaaaaaaaahhh"

  10. Brett said,

    June 6, 2009 @ 6:02 pm

    That is not dead which can eternal lie.
    And with strange coinages even death may die.

  11. Pekka said,

    June 7, 2009 @ 3:04 am

    Almost one million words and still no way to inquire about the ordinal ranks of things? If one only could ask "how manyth" time this is that Mr. Payack's illustrious work is discussed on the Language Log! If only. There just is no word in English to ask about such things.

    One can only speculate that the lack of this word reflects the relative uninterest that English-speaking cultures show towards ordering and ranking things sequentially.

  12. Richard said,

    June 7, 2009 @ 6:47 am

    @Pekka: English doesn't seem to have an easy (still less single-word) way to express that meaning; but some languages do. I recall my pleasure in discovering that Latin had just such a word, quotus (conventionally translated "which in order of number", but basically the question word to which the answer would be primus etc.); thus quota hora est? 'what time is it?', since the answer would be of the form 'it is the nth hour'.

    It would be interesting to know if there are any cross-linguistic studies of inventories of question words that might tell us how many languages do have such a word.

  13. jimroberts said,

    June 7, 2009 @ 10:34 am

    I would feel no qualms on asking "The how manyth time …", though I could no do it without the article.

  14. Troy S. said,

    June 7, 2009 @ 11:17 am

    Ah, yes, I too have a vision of the new Babel: a towering Cyclopean structure of non-Euclidean architecture slopes beneath a gibbous moon, its noisome eldritch power reducing the languages of men to the idiot gibbering of savages.

  15. Mark Liberman said,

    June 7, 2009 @ 11:52 am

    Troy S.: …the idiot gibbering of savages.

    For example, investment advisors?

  16. W. Kiernan said,

    June 7, 2009 @ 4:24 pm

    But what will happen then?

    Oh no.

  17. greg said,

    June 8, 2009 @ 8:23 am

    Apparently, Mr Payack is behind the times, by almost 3/4 of a million words. A new dictionary of words called Wordnik has the count at 1.7 million words already. Though I suppose Payack can argue that his words are 'real' as wordnik looks like it could possibly become similar to urbandictionary.

    [(myl) Joking aside, the whole idea is incoherent, as Ben Zimmer explained a few years ago. If you're interested, follow these links to read the rest of our earlier coverage. ]

  18. ajay said,

    June 8, 2009 @ 10:31 am

    And overhead, without any fuss, the Arthur C. Clarke fans were coming in.

  19. Jens Fiederer said,

    June 8, 2009 @ 2:11 pm

    I haven't done the math, unwilling to lose any precious seconds of these end times to rational behavior, but does that calendar shift by any chance shift us to the first of April?

    [(myl) It's always April 1, somewhere in those unformed realms of infinity beyond all Nature as we know it, whose mere existence stuns the brain and numbs us with the black extra-cosmic gulfs it throws open before our frenzied eyes. ]

  20. Bryn LaFollette said,

    June 8, 2009 @ 7:21 pm

    This reminds me of something I read on the back of a sugar packet once: "Iä! Shub-Niggurath! As a foulness shall ye know Them. Their hand is at your throats, yet ye see Them not; and Their habitation is even one with your guarded threshold. Yog-Sothoth is the key to the gate, whereby the spheres meet. Man rules now where They ruled once; They shall soon rule where man rules now. …" and so on.

    [(myl) This sugar packet, perhaps? ]

  21. [Lesetipp] Fehler machen Worte « [ʃplɔk] said,

    June 20, 2009 @ 4:07 pm

    […] Begründungen dafür, warum es völliger Quatsch ist. (Unter anderem hier, hier, hier, hier, hier und erst kürzlich hier.) “Auch die deutsche Sprache wächst, etwas langsamer zwar, aber es […]

  22. stephen said,

    June 26, 2010 @ 3:51 pm

    "Things get a little clearer once you realize that by "millionth word" Payack means "millionth unbroken sequence of alphabetic characters attested at least 25,000 times on the web"…"

    Hey! If they're on the web, that means we could include names of Star Trek planets, Star Wars villains, video game minutiae , etc. etc. etc. Great!

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