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Great Caesar's ghost, it IS a word

One of my fellow Testy Copy Editors begs to be told that wikify — presumably to construct as a wiki or incorporate into or adapt for a wiki — is not a word. I fear that there’s no help.

Whether something “is or is not a word” exercises many commentators on language and the people who pose questions to them. But that’s not the right question. The blunt fact is, and the linguists are right about this, that if it is comprehensible to another speaker of the language, it is a word. You may not care for impact as a verb, or worse, impactful, and you may hold up bootylicious between two fingers as you would pick up a slug from the sidewalk, but they are all words, and it is idle to contest that status.

Over at the blog Headsup, FEV points out that “the general philosophy around here is that it's best not to lose too much sleep banning new words and usages. Don't get us wrong; there are lots of them we cordially dislike, and if you want help in ridding yourself of verbs like ‘impact’ and ‘reference,’ we're here for you. (I'm starting to get exercised about ‘do-over,’ myself.) But we won't exile you for using the damn things. Just try not to do it in front of the kitties.”

The principles of evolution apply to language as well as to biology. Language is constantly throwing up variations and novelties, most of which perish after a brief span, but some of which endure. Look at the ever-entertaining Slang and Euphemism by Richard A. Spears. Take a word — we’ll try oaf, one of the more innocuous entries — and examine the richness of defunct vocabulary: 

Addle-brain, bake-head, balatron, beanhead, beetle-brain, blockhead, blubberbrain, Boeotian, booberkin, Boobus americanus, butterball, cabbagehead, calf-lolly, chawbacon, chuff, clabber-head, cockscomb, cod, Country Jake, diddle-head, dillypot, dimbo, dink., doddypate, dodunk, donk, dooble, doof, dorbel, dorf, dorkmunder, Dorkus maximus, dromedary, drongo, droud, drube, and a full two and a half columns of close print to go.

It’s not up to the copy desk to legislate for the language, which is going to go where it wants to, throwing up and altering and discarding words with merry abandon. But we do get to have opinions about what is clear, what is precise, what is appropriate in context, and even, sometimes, what is elegant. Say otherwise, and risk being termed a looby.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:09 PM | | Comments (9)
        

Comments

How's this for synchronicity? Editorial cartoonist Pat Oliphant used "Boobus americanus" in his cartoon for March 17.

Ohhhh...all I can think about now is how I can casually drop "chawbacon" into my next article.

Well said, FEV. Flexibility and evolution are what make English unique and beautiful. But I have to admit...I'm among the many who secretly cringe to hear or see certain new words used.

I admit that, upon reading the word "instantiation" in a paper I was editing, I let out a mighty guffaw. Totally dismissed it as a word fabricated by the author, an employee of the world's largest software company, and, well, they just talk like that. But then I looked it up at Merriam-Webster's & gosh, it has an entry. That took me down a few notches.

Given that people are going to have different opinions about words (old _and_ new), I generally find myself impatient with discussions here at work in which various editors object to a word on such grounds as "it's ugly" or "grotesque." (Actual quotations.) It seems far more productive to debate at least nominally objective qualities, such as whether it has negative connotations, whether it might make the lawyers nervous, whether it violates house style in various ways, (very importantly!) whether the intended audience will understand it, etc. As I believe you stated recently (or perhaps quoted?), editors can render any opinion about verbiage or usage they want, but must be ready to defend their position. In my book, "I just don't like that word" isn't sufficient by itself to veto the use of a term.

PS In our world (technical editing), we have occasionally found ourselves in the situation where a Web search or a peek at certain well-known online encyclopedias has supported a writer's argument that a term that is new and questionable (perhaps like "wikify" in your example) is in fact well known for the audience, and that coming up with an alternative and supposedly better term would in fact be confusing, not helpful. This editing business, it can be quite enlightening. :-)

Does not 'wikify' qualify as a neologism? And have many neologisms not eventually established themselves in the lexicon over time?

For the record, in my household we say Doofus maximus quite often.

That is pretty much the point I was trying to make. Some people rush to use neologisms, as some race to embrace fads (and wind up with closets full of Nehru jackets and leisure suits). Some are supicious of novelties and wait until it is clear that they have established them. Neologisms and slang tend to be ephemeral, and no one can predict with confidence what will stick and what will evaporate.

That is pretty much the point I was trying to make. Some people rush to use neologisms, as some race to embrace fads (and wind up with closets full of Nehru jackets and leisure suits). Some are supicious of novelties and wait until it is clear that they have established them. Neologisms and slang tend to be ephemeral, and no one can predict with confidence what will stick and what will evaporate.

Wow! I'm just struck that you would actually pick up a slug with any fingers!

If you 'wikify' something, you make an internal link to another page in the same wiki.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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