Boy, was I wrong

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No, not about whether "professional linguists, almost universally, do not believe that any naturally occurring changes in the language can be bad". More on that later. Nor was I wrong about James Wood's sneer at Sarah Palin's "verbage". No more on that is needed.

But with respect to Anu Garg's A.Word.A.Day election special for "Palin", I completely blew it. After seeing obambulate as the AWAD resonance for "Obamba", I correctly predicted bidentate as the item for "Biden" (though I didn't register my guess in advance, and so don't deserve any any credit). But then I got cocky and predicted palinal ("Characterized by or involving backward motion, esp. of the lower jaw in chewing") for "Palin".

But the "Palin"-oriented AWAD turns out to be palinode, "A poem in which the author retracts something said in an earlier poem". I would have been even more embarrassed if the word had been palingenesis "Regeneration, rebirth; revival, resuscitation; Ontogenetic development characterized by the ordered recapitulation of inherited ancestral forms, with any innovation arising at the end of the sequence; The formation of new magma by the remelting of existing magmatic rocks".

And I'm still stumped about what Anu will find for McCain.

[Please note that these are all real pre-existing words, not joke words coined for the occasion.]


  1. mike said,

    October 22, 2008 @ 6:09 pm

    I wonder what makes a word "real" if (almost) no one other than dictionary editors has ever heard of it. For example the top google results for "obambulate" are all dictionaries or people noting it as the word of the day. Certainly you couldn't expect to use it in almost any context without having to explain what it means.

    Contrast with things (i.e., names of new technologies) which aren't widely considered to be real words, but which are readily understood by many more people.

  2. Mark Liberman said,

    October 22, 2008 @ 6:13 pm

    mike: I wonder what makes a word "real" if (almost) no one other than dictionary editors has ever heard of it.

    Not much. But it's a step up from inventing something on the spot. Where "up" is defined in some space for the evaluation of amusing games.

  3. rootlesscosmo said,

    October 22, 2008 @ 7:27 pm

    Gelett Burgess wrote The Purple Cow

    I never saw a purple cow
    I never hope to see one
    But I can tell you, anyhow,
    I'd rather see than be one

    and then Vingt ans après:

    Ah yes, I wrote The Purple Cow;
    I'm sorry now I wrote it,
    But I can tell you, anyhow,
    I'll kill you if you quote it.

    A palinode?

  4. Doc Rock said,

    October 22, 2008 @ 7:38 pm


  5. Tayloj said,

    October 22, 2008 @ 7:45 pm

    Though I'd be surprised to encounter anyone using "obambulate," I wouldn't be surprised if a reader familiar with "perambulate" would be able to make a reasonable guess as to its meaning. In that sense it seems a fair sight better than a word coined on the spot.

    I remember a high school essay on the Odyssey in which it the student mentioned that Odysseus deoculated the Cyclops. The OED has it, but the student independently invented the word, and the teacher marked it with several question marks.

  6. Q. Pheevr said,

    October 22, 2008 @ 7:49 pm

    rootlesscosmo – Indeed, that's the very example Garg quotes.

    I don't know what he'll come up with for McCain, either. If I were in his position, I might punt on the prefix and go with Cainozoic, which the OED defines as "of or pertaining to the third of the great geological periods (also called tertiary), or to the remains or formations characteristic of it."

  7. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    October 22, 2008 @ 9:09 pm

    As a side note "Cainozoic" is an alternate spelling (probably archaic and derived from the already rare Caenozoic) of Cenozoic, and it is NOT the same as the Tertiary (which is a part of it, the other being the Quaternary).

  8. Tim said,

    October 22, 2008 @ 9:23 pm

    [Please note that these are all real pre-existing words, not joke words coined for the occasion.]

    The made up word is "palinfertile", meaning "only capable of concieving or delivering children under awkward circumstances."

  9. Q. Pheevr said,

    October 22, 2008 @ 10:04 pm

    Jean-Sébastien Girard – Thanks for pointing that out; I'm kicking myself for not having recognized it. (The OED–at least, the edition I consulted–gives the alternative spellings cænozoic and kainozoic, so I was mentally pronouncing the word with a /k/; I think if I'd been imagining an /s/, I might have made the connection with the more current term.) And of course the fact that the term appears to be obsolete makes it a rather poorer choice for a word of the day.

  10. Larry Sheldon said,

    October 22, 2008 @ 10:14 pm

    "…was I was wrong."

    Do you write TelePrompter for a certain politician?

  11. Nathan Myers said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 12:14 am

    This seems as good a place as any to mention an article The American Scholar just posted on its (test?) website, originally published in 2006, titled "Shouldn’t there be a word…? The holes in our language and the never-ending search for words to fill them" by Barbara Wallraff:

    Linked via my name above.

  12. Will said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 1:15 am

    The McCain word is "meeken"

  13. Chris said,

    October 23, 2008 @ 8:56 am

    "Palinode" is particularly apt since by selecting Palin, McCain retracted his earlier campaign message about the importance of experience.

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