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A million reasons not

You will not see at this blog any celebration of the coining of the millionth word in English, as calculated by Paul J.J. Payack, however much attention the supposed phenomenon gets elsewhere. The reason is that a number of respected linguists have concluded that Mr. Payack is a fraud.

The matter has been most recently discussed at Language Log, with links to previous entries. The comments are instructive, because Mr. Payack himself responds, in a manner that does not enhance his credibility.

English has a lot of words, and counting them involves arbitrary choices — Are different forms of a verb separate words? Are variant spellings separate words? Should obsolete or archaic words no longer in use be included? — and serious questions about methodology — Do errors by non-native speakers count? How many people have to use a neologism for it to count? What sources (print, broadcast, Internet) are used to collect the words? Are all Englishes (British, American, Canadian, Australian, Nigerian, etc.) to be included? Slang, too?

The whole operation looks bogus, but that has not prevented journalists from solemnly writing about the advent of the millionth word.

I suppose it has something to do with the journalistic fascination with impressive but essentially meaningless numbers. Think of anniversary stories, a newspaper staple. If it is one year or 10, 25 or 50 years since a particular event, you can count on reading about it. It is 10 years since a child died, and the parents are still sad. It is 25 years that the unsolved murder has remained unsolved. It is 50 years since “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” and the outcome has not changed.

The occurrence of these articles is entirely predictable, as is the lack of anything surprising in them. They are the journalistic equivalent of fishing with dynamite: You get the press release about the millionth word in English, and there’s your story; you interview two or three people about their memories of the great event, and the rest of the story you can mine from the files. Nothing could be easier. (Although The Sun’s feature in 2004 on the 100th anniversary of the Great Fire of Baltimore was pushed through the copy desk on edition deadline — a story the paper had had 99 years to write.)

It’s of no consequence to me whether English has a million words or 900,000. I’m more interested in what people do with them.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:33 AM | | Comments (4)
        

Comments

>I’m more interested in what people do with them.

They write press releases with them celebrating the millionth word? Haha. Cheap laffs, sorry. :-)

(Although The Sun’s feature in 2004 on the 100th anniversary of the Great Fire of Baltimore was pushed through the copy desk on edition deadline — a story the paper had had 99 years to write.)

An interesting aside. It says a great deal about how newsrooms are run. The Sun is far from alone in this respect.

It’s of no consequence to me whether English has a million words or 900,000. I’m more interested in what people do with them.

It's easier in all ways for the public (and journalists) to gape at big numbers and anniversaries than to ponder substantive ideas.

great timing, John, and it dovetails so well with this from the Guardian:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2009/jan/05/murphys-law-accidents

Among the many fine anniversaries in prospect this year, not the least is the 60th birthday of Murphy's Law, alternatively - though erroneously - known as Sod's Law or, if you're really into this kind of thing, Finagle's Law.

From a T-shirt I saw advertised:

Not everything that counts can be counted
And not everything that can be counted counts.

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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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