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Don't hang the lexicographers

Erin McKean, tweeting as @emckean, alerts to a fresh blast of peevery at newsobserver.com, where one Barry Saunders inveighs against misuses of the language.

It appears that the prevalence of ginormous, a portmanteau of gigantic and enormous, has gotten his shorts in a bunch*. It’s a bastardization of two perfectly good words, he says, and he doesn’t care much for the people who use it—especially commercial enterprises that use it in their advertising. They will no longer have his custom.

I suppose I ought to feel more sympathy for him, given the number of words that grate on my ear. Not that one, though. Ginormous is, after all, used hyperbolically, and the combination of two hyperboles into a hyper-hyperbole seems oddly appropriate.

No, Mr. Saunders is welcome to sputter and fume as much as he likes about words and usages that he finds infelicitous. That’s his right, though we’re not obliged to heed him. But—and this is the important part—he needs to keep his hands off the lexicographers.

Conversate, he complains at one point, has been “accepted into respectable dictionaries.” And then: “The real culprits most likely are the dictionary editors who, in an apparent effort to be hip and inclusive, have lowered their standards.”

Mr. Saunders, it appears, expects lexicographers to be legislators. They are, he thinks, a fraternity’s or club’s membership committee. When a word presents for admission, they examine its pedigree—who its parents were, where it went to school, what kind of car it drives, all that—and then decide whether or not it is our sort and let it in to the dictionary.

But they aren’t gatekeepers. Lexicographers are more like botanists: When they find a new species, they examine it and describe it, and if it breeds true, they add it to the list. You may not care for dandelions, but there they are.

I read recently a brief outburst online by someone whose views appear to coincide with Mr. Saunders’s, complaining about the crazy idea that if enough people make an error in language, it’s then all right. (I can’t remember whether it was someone raving about irregardless or could care less or something equally pointless.) Well, that is exactly how it is. We have English because multiple generations of illiterate peasants demolished Anglo-Saxon grammar wholesale. And if enough people use a particular word or adopt a usage and agree on its meaning, then there it is.

Dictionaries tell you what words people use and how they use them. It’s up to you to decide which ones are suitable for your purposes. Keep in mind that when other people make different choices, the dictionary is not a rule book you can throw at them.

 

*That’s knickers in a twist for our trans-Atlantic audience.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:37 PM | | Comments (20)
        

Comments

I'm reminded of Hans Stengel's cartoon about lexicography. If standards had kept lowering as much and as often as the peevers would have us believe, we would be reduced to hoots and dung-flinging by now.

Horsefeathers.

It is my language to abuse. And I enjoy the creative misuse of others.

Is "humongous" allowed?

"Keep in mind that when other people make different choices, the dictionary is not a rule book you can throw at them."

Except in Scabble of course.

Do people really say "conversate"? I haven't heard that one before - and I won't mind if I never do.

With all due respect to lexicographers, if their aim is to appear hip, as Mr. Peeverhead seems to fear, perhaps they would have selected a different profession.

I believe the jarring "ginormous" originated with an equally jarring character on "NCIS" who routinely fractures the language with manic outbursts. Her wardrobe - the actress is nearing 40 - is equally jarring, so there you are. It seems that we must accept the made-up (often by teenagers) words that Rebbi McIntyre approves, but none else. Why, do you suppose,is that, she inquired innocently?

I too never heard of "conversate" and could have gone the rest of my young life without hearing of it here. Also the odious "to dialogue," beloved of State Department bureaucrats.

We are not witnessing new words here, but new memes - communications that get remembered and passed on, and subsequently live or die by their own volition.
The meme-friendly words are those that are 'sticky' and serve a need within a community.
It will be intersting to see if 'ginormous' spreads ginormously!

As Mr Saunders says, we on the cooler side of the ocean have been aware of ginormous for yonks (am I allowed to use yonks on an American blogsite?), but we've survived the experience. It's a portmanteau, for heaven's sake, and as often with portmanteaux it's used jokily. Didn't that bloke Dodgson go in for this sort of jokiness? And isn't he still reckoned reasonably proficient at English?

Can't say I care for conversate, but there you go. Good taste is a matter of taste.

I've never watched NCIS but I see it's been on since 2003. The first time I ever heard 'ginormous' was in 1994 from a new colleague, and have heard it used fairly regularly since then.

Conversate was a new one for me, but apparently has been used in some circles for years. Perhaps conversate is to conversation as precipitate is to precipitation.

What I find more grating than the neologisms themselves is my bad luck at choosing early versions of them to incorporate into my speech. I still think, for example, that "snarf" is a better-sounding expression for "devour" than "scarf," which seems to have won out (and "snarf" has the advantage of being a unique word, unlike scarf). I also find it more euphonious to say "humUngous," which is how I heard it in junior high. This may be partly owing to moves from one region of the country to another, or early-onset hearing loss, but these are as likely to make me wince as, say, "by any matter of means" or "ecksetera" or the like.

I don't use ginormous myself, mainly because I am not fourteen years old, but enough of the fourteen-year-old I once was remains to make the knowledge that it gets under some people's skin very tempting.


Not really that "innocent" Patricia the Terse,

Hmm..... are you implying that country singer/ actress Reba McEntire just basically fell off the old turnip truck headin' out of Kiowa, Oklahoma ( her home stompin' grounds), as she headed off to Country Music City U.S.A.----Nashville, Tenn.----- to make her eventual fame and fortune? Once a hayseed, always a hayseed? HA!

Now sweet Reba may come off as a bit of a country bumpkin, lady redneck, rather steeped in the (deep) Southern vernacular 'yawl' , but IMHO she's definitely no 'unedumicated' dumbo (or 'dumbette') on, or off stage. She's clearly a pretty articulate, and savvy gal to have gotten to where she's at, today. When most folk know you by a singular name, you've pretty much made it big time, in my books.

Patricia, I'm darn sure she'd both resent and 'refudiate' (Oh, what would we do without you, Mrs. Palin?), your slighting remark. HA! I think you made a 'hunormous' assumption there, that Ms. McEntire plays fast-and-loose w/ the Queen's English, even though she did grow up following the southern pro rodeo circuit as a kid back in Tornado Alley-and-environs, taking in the daring exploits of her rough-ridin', bull-wrangling, macho daddy McEntire. (Not exactly a intellectually stimulating milieu in which to be raised., unless you're an up-and-coming cow whisperer. HA!)

However, I do agree w/ your astute observation that a lot of these new-fangled words that creep (or sometimes leap) into our wider vocabulary, arise from our slaves-to-the-faddish teenage generation. Many appear to be derivative of the novel gadgetry and breaking technological innovations that appear to consume this younger über-consumer culture. Words like "unfriend", "tweet', "reboot". "e-mail" et al, never even existed back when we present-day early boomers were snot-nosed kids. A transistor radio was a big deal back in those days, and a slide-rule was the groovy tech tool-de-jour. (Well, maybe for your average nerd. HA!)

We thought the likes of teen-idol Pat Boone w/ his signature white-buck shoes, and that cadmium red V-necked Orlon sweater were so cutting edge 'groovy' back in the day. (Ugh!)
And then, of course, Elvis the Pelvis arrived on the scene, followed by the British Invasion, and all of a sudden artists like Pat Boone became passe, and 'square'.

But IMO, it's all good. Language should be a fluid, somewhat flexible, ever-evolving (or some may argue, devolving) medium of human communication. Frequency, or pervasiveness of usage, and popularity of a particular word in the wider 'culture', seems to be the main criterion for whether a 'new' word has the staying-power to enter the official lexicon.

Many words appear to have originally grown from out of a subcultural context, say a particular genre of music, or art form. For instance, the words "cool' and "hip' (or "hipster'), from mid-20th-century jazz circles, were eventually co-opted by the wider population beyond the jazz world, particularly thru the younger, more open-minded generation of the era, who appreciate the idiom, wanting to be associated w/ pop-culture's cutting edge.

Of course, the late modern-day philosopher, Marshall McLuhan spoke of "cool" and "hot" in terms of various types of media------ watching TV versus say reading a book. But his then evolutionary, far-out (another jazz term) theoretical construct was more to do w/ how a particular, or specific medium affected the person interfacing w/ that medium----whether it was a passive ("cool'), as opposed to an active/ engaging ("hot") transaction between media, and media 'consumer'. Remember, for the cerebral McLuhan, "the medium IS the message".

Well Patricia, as usual I've gone slightly adrift, and am taking on water 'as we speak'.
Some might contend that I'm ginormously adrift, and full of hot air. HA!

So without further adieu, I'll bid farewell, and wish you and all friends to this site, a super, 'fabulicious' Presidents' Day.

A toast to George and honest Abe!

ALEX

P.S.: Patricia, sorry for ragging on you re/ Reba McEntire. Just havin' a little fun, and hope you took it in the spirit intended.

I know nothing of the Reba, save that she yodels in country music fashion. You used all those words for naught.

In my view, 'ginormous' stands a distant second to my younger daughter's creation of 'gimantous' about 20 years ago, when her age numbered in the early single digits. Although she promptly forgot it, I have remembered it and used it with fondness, always crediting her for its creation, of course. I look on it as a poetic take on 'gigantic' with shades of 'enormous' and who knows what else.


Patricia the Terse,

Oops!

I must admit, I blew that one, big time.

I apologize for the total misread.

So your "Rebbi" was not Reba, the talented red-haired country twanger? Hmm... even if my "words (were) for naught' as you so bluntly, or perhaps tersely, put it in you last post. For me it was fun kvetching, nonetheless. (Even thought it was unwittingly misdirected.)

So now, as I understand it, you've gone and elevated our exultant Prof. McIntyre to his holiness, "Rebbi McIntyre"?------the word "Rebbe", from the Yiddish, being a title of respect for the leader of an Orthodox Hassidic group, or the term for a teacher in a Hebrew school. There is a definite intrinsic scholarly, or learned connotation associated w/ "Rebbe', perhaps even more so than the more common Rabbi, which I gather is used in the less orthodox branches of Judaism, namely Conservative and Reform.

Now I totally support your implied notion that Prof. McI. is both something of a scholar, and an exemplar of higher learning, but respectfully, hardly cut from the rabbinical cloth.

Perhaps Pastor, or Reverend McIntyre might be more fitting, as I detect a bit of a Calvinist- verging-on-Knoxian Presbyterian strain in his ofttimes strict lexicographic 'edicts'. HA!

If i missed the mark on THIS one, too, I basically need my head read, pronto.

Hope you are having a good week so far, Patricia.

Always enjoy the back-and-forth online discussion w/ you.

ALEX


Why Alex, how you do go on!


Patricia the Terse,

Yup!

I takes a lickin' and just keeps on tickin', dear lady!

Like those old Timex watches, or I would prefer to think, that lively little Energizer Bunny. But I must confess I'm a tad less furry, somewhat cuter, and my ears are smaller, yet I'll concede he's a better bass drummer. HA!

After all, as I've revealed before on this site, i'm a lapsed bagpiper. Ergo, filled w/ a lot of hot air. HA!

Have a wonderful weekend, Patricia.

ALEX

"ginormous" apparently dates back to 1948.

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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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