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The envy of academics

My worthy colleague Dan Rodricks responded yesterday to my post on Paul J.J. Payack and the challenges by professional linguists to his claims about the English language.

Mr. Rodricks, who has invited Mr. Payack to appear on his radio program three times, sprang to a qualified defense of his guest: “Payack is having fun and you can consider what he says with a grain of salt. (Several of my Midday listeners challenged the guy on his word-counting premises when he was on the air.) Some of what he says makes sense, some of it sounds like hyperbole. ...”

To that he adds, “It also appears that some academics are — oh, what's the word? — jealous of the celebrity Payack has enjoyed for presuming to count words.”

Geoffrey Pullum, Geoffrey Nunberg, Grant Barrett, and other linguists who find Mr. Payack’s claims preposterous have established reputations of their own. I doubt that they are turning green because Mr. Rodricks has invited Mr. Payack and neglected them.

The argument of envy is, I think, not the first arrow that ought to be plucked from the quiver. Suppose a gentleman came to you to display the skull of an australopithecine that he had dug up in his back yard. Suppose further that three or four established paleontologists assured you that the skull was in fact that of a calf. Would your first thought be that the paleontologists were motivated by envy of the discoverer?

Please be clear. I’m not disputing that Mr. Rodricks can invite anyone he likes to appear on his show; he even once had the serious lapse in judgment to invite me. Neither do I question his coming to the defense of his guest. But I think that the remark about jealousy is open to challenge.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:53 AM | | Comments (5)


No, envy would not be my first thought in the scenario you describe.

But if I then got a book about australopithecines published (based on the discovery of the calf skull) was and invited to appear on television shows to talk about australopithecines and to promote my book and, further, starting being described as an "expert" in australopithecine skulls and their excavations, I might think that some level of envy would reasonably result.

a million little pieces
a million little words
a million little lies

The jealousy comment is also part of the gambit called Beside the Point.

It attempts to move the discussion away from the challenge to the speaker's veracity.

Linguists call Payack's claim a fraud. You join in and offer a number of reasons why. Instead of countering your argument, Rodericks claims jealousy.

Doesn't matter. If the claim is false -- and it certainly reeks of that -- then it is.

"If the claim is false -- and it certainly reeks of that -- then it is."

Ah, but when a lie is repeated, especially if it is a Big Lie, people, good people all, come to believe it. And then we start seeing these false claims given the same legitimacy as real facts. My DW was annoyed with me a few nights ago when she was watching a TV show that claimed the "mysteries" of the Bermuda Triangle could be (were) due to a tiny Black Hole that drifted to earth. I poo-pooed the idea by asking her how a tiny Black Hole could swallow ships and aircraft, but not the ocean, and she seemed annoyed at me for doubting what was being shown. I wonder how many people think Piltdown Man really existed?

By the way, did you know that the Eskimos have 163,947 words for "snow?"

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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
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