English is a user-modifiable technology

Here's a stirring Boston Globe op-ed from master lexicographer Erin McKean, presenting the humane case for a dynamic English language in which speakers are allowed to coin neologisms and new usages without grammar tightasses insisting that language is not a user-modifiable technology .
Whenever I see "not a real word" used to stigmatize what is (usually) a perfectly cromulent word, I wonder why the writer felt the need to hang a big sign reading "I am not confident about my writing" on it. What do they imagine the penalty is for using an "unreal" word? A ticket from the Dictionary Police? The revocation (as the joke goes) of your poetic license? A public shaming by William Safire? The irony is that most of these words, without the disclaimer, would pass unnoticed by the majority of readers. (In case you noticed cromulent, that was invented in the 1990s for "The Simpsons.") Writers who hedge their use of unfamiliar, infrequent, or informal words with "I know that's not a real word," hoping to distance themselves from criticism, run the risk of creating doubt where perhaps none would have naturally arisen.
Chillax (via Oblomovka)


  1. My own personal view is that the making up of new words should be reserved for those who have achieved a certain mastery of the existing ones. Innit?

  2. In my experience people who make up fake words do so in an attempt to appear as thought they have a large vocabulary.
    It gives me a pain in the chestal region.

  3. Graham beat me to it. Of course, when I attempt to comment on vocabulary I screw up on “though”.

  4. I’m a bit of a hypocrite when it comes to this – I love making up new words, and most are ine, but there are the select few that I can’t stand, irregardless.

    As for not being confident – if you’re talking about posting on teh internets forums, (which the article really isn’t) well.. those grammar nazis scare me.

  5. I have this discussion a lot with my 3 year old, he can call squirrels “fingofango” if he likes but unless other people understand his coinages he is just speaking gibberish.
    Other than clarity, there is a lot of pleasure in words their origins and meanings. Go ahead and embiggen the language if you need a new word but a better more broadly understood one probably already exists.

  6. My fear is that the reader won’t know that I intentionally coined a new word. I don’t want them thinking that I just got it wrong. Similarly, I am often reluctant to end my sentences with prepositions. I know the rule, and I know it’s bullshit. But I don’t want the reader to think that I just don’t know any better.

  7. This is interesting, but not new. “Prescriptive” linguistics had been receding in favour of “descriptive” for many years. A word means whatever the people in a given conversation think it means, no more and no less. They’re just agreed-upon shorthand for the abstract concepts drifting through our heads; just tools, nothing sacred or immutable.

    Changing definitions and usage of language can be confusing, but is inevitable and sometimes helpful. If you ever find yourself thinking that “no! Language should be kept in its current, elegant form and not be allowed to change!” I suggest that you re-read some Shakespeare, or even Chaucer. Then remember that we speak differently from them because we’re the descendents of their time’s doggerel-spouting, smack-talking teenagers.

  8. I always use ‘explaination’ rather than the ‘correct’ ‘explanation’, even though their seems to be no justification for it other than me personal taste. I don’t generally approve of that thing, I think I basically do it because I’m an arrogant hypocrite! The subtext is ‘the spelling everyone else agrees on is incorrect, I am the arbiter!’ I’m sure most people seeing it wouldn’t even notice anything, or know it was ‘wrong’, those that just would just assume that I spelt it badly by mistake or in ignorance, no doubt, so doing your own spelling thing is risky if your ego is more fragile than mine.

    As for actual new words, I think most of them are different from the squirrel/fingofango example in that it’s obvious from the word itself and the context what it means. I often do it myself in my blog (perhaps subconsciously when I think a dull bit it needs livening up a little?), for instance looking back I notice ‘neurotrickery’ a few days ago. Often these are things that wouldn’t even be an issue in a language that’s constructed in a slightly different way. I see two main types of neologism in the list at the top of the Boston Globe piece, the fun and the functional, and I expect people would have different objections to those two types.

    What’s not covered is real neologisms, like ‘blog’ or ‘podcast’, which would need explaination to someone not in the know, and which most of us would never try to create and spread.

  9. I think the invention of new word is perfectly fine, language is constantly evolving, we don’t speak the same as we did in the time of shakespear.
    There can be several reasons to invent a new word, if you think there is no word in the existing vocabulary that covers the meaning or if it’s a new concept that needs a word to call it or you think the new word just feels better, whatever it is just do it, if it’s widly used or used in certain groups, you’ve got yourself a new word!

    Try to make the new word sound fun please, like ‘Jabberwocky’.

  10. I have no problem with the creation of new words when no other existing one will do – or even creating them for stylistic effect, but I do have a problem when the subsequent words are as ugly and lumpen as the examples cited in the article. Chillax? Ugh. Funner? God, no. They’re the sort of words which jar when you read them and stick in the throat like those horrible marketing buzzwords (some I’ve come across include “Ideation”, “Boundrylessness” or “Winningest”). If you’re going to invent something, make it elegant or at least make it fun.

    Then again, some words which do exist stick in my craw too. “Comedic” is a nasty, jagged little word which seems to have replaced the far smoother “comic” in people’s vocabulary. Why? I’ve no idea. “Comedic” just sounds laboured when the words “comic” or “funny” will do so much better.

  11. I have to agree with Bugs. What most people don’t understand or seem to overlook is as the title suggests language IS a user-modifiable technology, but also that language in and of itself is also completely arbitrary. It’s all about the signifier and the signified. Or in other words, the word and the object(ideas, emotions and the like included). A ‘chair’ is a ‘chair’ because that is the word we most commonly use to signify it. Calling it a borgen or a monkey doesn’t change it’s form or functionality, it is and always will be what it is.

    A good real life example of language being user modifiable, is the term ‘mcguffin’. Originally a Scottish surname, in the late 20th century Alfred Hitchcock took it and coined it as a term for an object or device in a film or book that has no real significance other than to move the plot forward (e.g. the briefcase in Pulp Fiction!).

  12. Language is organic; all words were made up at some point; said words often change meaning, sometimes subtly, sometimes completely; language is a communication tool, and if you are able to succeed at being understood, who cares what the tightasses think?

  13. It’s kind of obvious isn’t it? Anyone who’s spent time with the O.E.D. knows that English is very dynamic. For anyone who is interested in a short book regarding the OED, read The Professor and the Madman, by Simon Winchester. It’s very interesting. If C.D. hasn’t read it I would wager he would like it quite a bit.

  14. I have no problem with language evolving — that’s simply a fact of life. English has quite a few kinks to work out, especially irrengular verbs (i.e. “went” instead of the more logical “goed,” etc.). There’s no reason why a word can’t be coined to fill a need, either. One of my sisters invented “gackaway” when informed that, indressing herself for the first time, she’d put her shirt on backward & inside-out. We all instantly recognized that English had no word for “inside out & backward,” and that my sister had just invented a word for it.

    The problems mostly occur when people misuse prefixes and suffixes. “Irregardless” is not a word because the prefix ir- means “not,” and as yet there is no need for a word that means “not regardless,” as far as I know. (Besides, the people who actually say “irregardless” in an otherwise coherent sentence, really meant “regardless.”) Recently, a bonehead at a distribution company told my business partner that they’d “mis-shipped” an order. This made-up word led to a great deal of speculation about what exactly had happened, because an exact definition of the word implies that they just wrapped duct tape around the books and mailed them out like that, when that was the least likely scenario. (I think what had actually happened was that they’d sent only a small part of the order, and it was the wrong books or the wrong quantity.) At any rate, “mis-shipped” was hardly a useful word to use in this context.

    “Verbing” (using a noun as a verb, usually by adding the suffix -ing to it) is another problem area. I do understand that some verbing actually occurred a long time ago and has gained acceptance. But I still only use “party” as a verb when talking about irresponsible people. My dinner guests were having a delightful party. Those hooligans who set the lake on fire were partying and it got out-of-control. Whenever I hear sportscasters say that someone “medaled” in the Olympics, all I can think is “I would have won this event, if it weren’t for those ‘medaling’ kids and their dog!” (Think “Scooby-Doo”) Perhaps verbing will become generally accepted and I’ll loosen up regarding it. But for know, I share Hobbes’ sentiment in saying that “Verbing weirds language.”

    Oh — and regarding gibberish: I teach, and occasionally encounter kids who actually think “gibberish” (and while they’re at it, “Pig-Latin”) is an actual language in which they’re fluent. This stems from the fact that they hear a certain musical quality in a repeated spoken phrase, and if they replace the words with mumbles or nonsense syllables but keep the cadence & pitch intact, others present know to which phrase they’re referring. Example:
    Kid brother: But I wanna come too!
    Older sister: Muh MUH mummuh muh moooo!
    If sister’s friends are present, they all figure out that one phrase translates to the other (at the expense of little brother’s feelings). However, this only applies to a very small lexicon of words & phrases, shared among a group of friends. “Outsiders” find it incomprehensible, and it falls apart when one tries to say something “original.” I demonstrated this during a study-hall class where a few students were faking an earnest conversation in “gibberish” and actually had some more gullible students trying to figure out what they were saying. I wrote a simple sentence on a piece of paper (a line from a famous book or speech) and asked one of the students to say it in gibberish to her friend, who then was to say it in English to me. The first student struggled for a while, eventually made nonsense sounds with the right cadences & pitch for English (interesting that “gibberish” uses the exact same cadences & pitch as an unrelated language!), and watched in dismay as her friend realized she had absolutely no idea what she’d just heard. Ergo, their “conversation” was all for show, with no actual communication occurring, or it consisted of often-repeated phrases — everyday gossip, lines from popular songs, that sort of thing.

  15. New words are cool, but people misusing literally drive me crazy and I reserve the right to ridicule them.

    Criticism and “grammar tightasses” are part of the dynamic for our evolving language. As the fine folks at Beg The Question put it:

    Descriptivist linguists, whom we do not fault for their stand, are quite free to watch as we bring about an evolution in the vernacular understanding.

  16. “I have no problem with language evolving — that’s simply a fact of life.”

    Less is more. The first sentence said it all.

  17. i’ve made up words that seem to be missing from the language.

    so your towel is terrycloth. what do you call the loops themselves, like when trying to describe that they’re caught on something? ‘terrying’.

  18. Harper’s had an excellent article about Shakespeare in which they show that there are a TON of words that Shakespeare made up that are now in common use. Yes, you need to be a subscriber to read that article…

  19. English has always been amazingly fluid, allowing users to build words from the blocks of nearly any language. The etymology of okay, perhaps the world’s most popular word, reveals the power that slang can have, but also how using the language broadly causes fad slang to be buried over time.

    This is because word policing helps the core “software” remain usable. It allows the language to remain sufficiently stable to allow us to read Jefferson and Dickens clearly, and I believe that English will become more stable with time, not less, due to efforts like Wikipedia, the reminders from Google searches, and good old fashioned social stigmatizing of those who misspell.

    The alternative would be too loose understanding as core grammar and spelling structures become unintelligibly to lose. If you can see my point.

  20. I want to point out a fascinating article on English usage, which makes a strong argument for the continued teaching and encouragement of Standard English.
    It is TENSE PRESENT. Democracy, English and the Wars over Usage By David Foster Wallace. It was originally published in the 4/02 issue of Harpers Magazine and I hope it has been reprinted in available form. I kept the magazine because it’s a brilliant article. This appears to be a more or less readable though unattractive copy of it:

  21. (Seems fine now…)
    For an example of the heavy-duty linguistic and semantic concerns which can be brought to bear when coining new words, see the Aldous Huxley – Dr. Humphrey Osmonds correspondence with respect to the word “psychedelic”. I last read it long before personal computers and R.Reagan’s cleansing of the Stacks, so you’ll have to find it fer yourselves in the Info Dumps.
    Sci/tech often needs to coin new terms, and it is fascinating (tho rare) to see the process in action.
    Similarly, I have often been struck by the aptness of the nomenclature in eg Debian apps.
    Language like all tools has uses not obvious to all users. each will use it as they can, as they see fit. Some slang will stick and spread, others just vanish with the people who use it…
    Not all “novelties” are good, but useful innovations will spread.
    There is though IMO a distinction to be drawn between novelty in the written forms and in the spoken word. For reasons which I deem too obvioso to natty on.

  22. A good example of language stigma is the word “teh”. Unlike many of its typed counterparts, teh has even made the jump to speech, probably because it is based on a common article, and has an obvious pronunciation.

    It is also exclusively stigmatic, and particular to demeaning poor intellectual skills on the internet. How often has anyone here used teh (followed by some noun) as a put-down? Grammatical stigma is native to the language.

    It’s like English inoculates itself against excessively rapid change in its users. Fascinating.

  23. @zergonapal

    There is only one response to “thats not a real word.”
    “It is now. And with the triple-word score and the ‘Q’ on a double-letter, I win!”

  24. An that I were to deign riposte upon this base affront to the finest tongue graced by God of this existence, I would allow that, of merit, invention the Athene of necessity is – but to those meritless, a scathing of the tongue of thy mother would compare not to the scathing delivered thee by the Mother Tongue.

    My front garden of grass, get thee off, knave.

  25. @ #17 NDOLLAK: [Applause] Excellent post. It addresses everything I was going to say, but much more eloquently than I could have ever managed.

    I’ll add one more example of using a noun as a verb that is in very widespread use with kids online today: Glitching. When playing videogames online I hear kids say that “Player X is glitching” or something along those lines when they think someone is using in-game exploits to cheat. It’s really bugs the hell out of me, usually to the point where I make fun of them.

    Most people that make up words to sound more intelligent. I don’t mind made up words, but if a person that does it is trying to pass it off as a well-established word, they should be burned for it.

  26. The problem with the analogy is that it implies treating language like a consumer product rather than a communications technology. Consumer products only need to do what the user wants them to do, while communications technologies require shared standards.

  27. BUGS: A word means whatever the people in a given conversation think it means, no more and no less. They’re just agreed-upon shorthand for the abstract concepts drifting through our heads; just tools

    The key being “agreed-upon”. The moment someone disagrees, we get this kind of debate. Yes, both the reckless linguistic innovators and the grammar nazis are too far towards their respective ends of the spectrum, because, well, they disagree with most people on what proper usage is.

    ALAN: if you are able to succeed at being understood, who cares what the tightasses think?

    I have heard the analogy that bad language is like static, compression artifacts, and other things in audio/video that don’t prevent the message from getting across, but are annoying and make it less enjoyable for us to receive that message. So, I care.

    KEIR: …for instance looking back I notice ‘neurotrickery’ a few days ago…
    BOBDINKEL: I don’t want the reader to think that I just don’t know any better.

    Typically when I make up new words or sentence structures, I stick them full of hyphens (since they are typically combinations of real words) and/or use quotes. Not too hard to do.

    BARELYFITZ: but people misusing literally drive me crazy and I reserve the right to ridicule them


    YAMARA: okay, perhaps the world’s most popular word

    Interesting. I’d never thought about that before. The world’s most popular word… Hm.

    YAMARA: I believe that English will become more stable with time

    Definitely. The more media is created for a wider and wider audience, and the more globalized the world becomes, the more standardized language will get, and the harder it will be for something new to break the inertia of the constantly-growing blob called “English”. Of course, English might be changing quite a bit in the near future as different cultures’ not-quite-American ways of speaking it get mixed with the blob (e.g. Hong Kong, Singapore, Mexico). But after that, English will probably evolve extremely slowly.

    KEIR: What’s not covered is real neologisms, like ‘blog’ or ‘podcast’, which would need explaination to someone not in the know

    Not exactly pertinent to this discussion, but: There are very few things that annoy me for no good reason, and one of them is the occasional reporter or news anchor or columnist who explains the meaning of what, to me, is an obvious word. It’s so annoying! This happens in one of two categories: Tech neologisms (Do you really need to explain what “blog” and “podcast” are, or even to put them in quotes!?! No, you don’t!) and knowledge that is not as is not as widespread as I think it is (Do you really need to explain what Linux is?!?! Do you really need to say “Northrop Grumman, a defense contractor…” or “Pratt & Whitney, who designs and builds jet engines…” – It’s not like you say “Boeing, an aerospace company…” or “Microsoft, the maker of Windows and MS Office…”! And I have heard people say “SLR” and “first-person shooter” with such deliberate care, slowly enunciating each bit of the words, which was annoying since I knew they would never say “SUV” or “video game” so didactically). It makes me feel stupid.

  28. #17 ndollak:

    I have no problem with language evolving…

    The problems mostly occur when people misuse…

    You don’t get it, do you? What you perceive as “misuse” is language evolution.
    While “irregardless” does grate on me somewhat and I don’t think I would use the word unironically, applying logic to word formation (and more broadly to other aspects of language) is overly simplistic. The fact that in certain registers the word is perceived as incorrect doesn’t mean it isn’t a word: indeed, however much people may loathe the word, everyone knows what it means.

    As for “mis-shipped,” you’re right that it doesn’t say exactly what happened, but it’s no less informative than saying, for instance, “We screwed up.” Blame the speaker for not being specific, but I had no problem whatsoever understanding that word: they shipped something wrong.

    I expect we’ll encounter more pet peeves of language usage in the comments. Oh look, #18 barelyfitz is annoyed by the misuse of “literally.”

    Language Log has a post on the perceived sanctity of words in the dictionary: In the dictionary, or not. See Prescriptivist Poppycock (also at LL) for even more discussion of language ire.

  29. Airshowfan: The blob of english that actually gets used is considerably smaller than the english language as a whole is now…maybe a fifth or sixth part of the words available are actually used, so though the blob be growing the average speakers’ vocabulary becomes smaller.
    Language as a tool must evolve to meet the needs of its users. It needs to do some things (communicate) or else people start well dieing. Other things (amusement) you can use it for are perhaps just as essential but depend more on the elasticity of this tool .. which may be tension with the former.
    Regardless of that how words and phrases, both old and novel, are used/incorporated by/into the formal language is dependent on utility of the “novelty” for a population over time, and is also dependent on whether the community is a spoken-word or a written-word community.
    Whether or not the usage gets transferred as a tradition to the next generation is another thing entirely. More likely for the writers though…
    Yamara: The cross-fertilization between languages is fascinating a well. “OK” is now used by Chinese speakers and Russians, as a part of their own languages, and who knows how many others…because it serves a function, better than what went before, apparently. OK ?

  30. bugs:

    A word means whatever the people in a given conversation think it means, no more and no less. They’re just agreed-upon shorthand for the abstract concepts drifting through our heads; just tools


    The key being “agreed-upon”. The moment someone disagrees, we get this kind of debate.

    The agreements that underly language, though, are far from conscious. But I think that arguments against wordhood are often willful, in that the person arguing against something being a legitimate word often knows full well what the speaker’s intended meaning was. While we may perceive such things as “irregardless”, “literally”, sentence-final prepositions, so-called split infinitives, and so on, as sounding ignorant, and argue against their usage on these stylistic grounds, many people go on to deny (falsely, I believe) their understanding, or intentionally misrepresent (through “logic”) the speaker’s intent.

  31. Hmmm…in an epistemological sense, does form follow function or does function follow form in the example of Chinese language speakers adopting and using “ok” to mean what English speakers mean by “ok”?
    Or is this off-topic?

  32. a rummage through the seldom-needed words bin usually suffices, almost everything already has a good coinage somewhen. I do admire a good coining when I meet one though. I will say one thing: when trying hard to explain an idea so it is actually understood by myself and the other, I always end up using very simple, short words. Damn hard finding the right ones.

  33. Best not let the intelligent design folks hear us talking about the evolution of words.

  34. @11

    Bugs, it isn’t entirely true that words only mean what a given user or users mean them to mean in a given conversation or conversations. Part of descriptive linguistics takes into account the sociohistory of words, their usage over time and across cultures. So the given usage of a speaker or speakers has to be looked at against the history of the language, usage over time, etc. So if you were to think, say, that “horse” meant “cat,” you’d only be right in the most limited of ways, in your own head: descriptive linguistics would certainly record your usage, but would then place it against other uses of “horse,” the resounding totality of which would probably mean something like what most of us mean when we say-think “horse.” Tools, yes; tools sans history, no.

    I’m a little perplexed by all the anti-perscriptivist sentiments I’m seeing here: at best, prescriptive linguistics merely seeks to set a common-ground for everyday usage. It’s not merely correctness for correctness’ sake (although this can be a fun game to play): it’s an attempt to establish a generally understood mainstream language that most everyone can use without confusion. To deviate from these prescriptions is either language evolution or bad language use, depending on the context: if I’m on fire and keep shouting “Cromulent cromulent,” I’m participating in the evolution of language to an idiotic degree, and ignoring the practical, contextual side of language…to my peril. Further instances may be adduced.

  35. The one main problem I see with the debate over whether English is a user-modifiable technology:

    “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is. If the–if he–if ‘is’ means is and never has been, that is not–that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement….Now, if someone had asked me on that day, are you having any kind of sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky, that is, asked me a question in the present tense, I would have said no. And it would have been completely true.”

    There are many people who are completely happy to perjure themselves, mislead, slander, libel, deceive, weasel, slither, bean to the point of perversity and otherwise misuse words whose meaning is already well-agreed-upon.

    I’ve seen people claim that the colloquialist meaning “Where do you get off by (how do you have the /chutzpah/ to be) asking that?” for the literal phrase “What right have you to ask that?” superseded the literal meaning – “Where is it guaranteed in our society that you have the right to free expression of something that offends me?” in a discussion encompassing American culture, rights, and free expression and censorship, and propagandic hijacking of cultures and redefinition of terms for political purposes – and claimed that former, colloquial reading made the latter, literal reading “impossible” (these were not the most bright debaters ever).

    Dictionaries and prescriptivism are very important for reference by those who aren’t masters of the language – otherwise, they’d be lost or worse, would be (wittingly or unwittingly) espousing inconsistent or even contradictory positions (i.e., someone claiming to be egalitarian in goal yet espousing a detailed platform of hegemony, the benefits of which directly apply to the person).

    The other problem is this: When debating, even when you’ve pwned the ignorant twit with a rakish barb of subtle wit, they are often too much the boor to recognise. Sticks and Stones do break the bones but words can never sway an idiot.

  36. Takuan said, “I always end up using very simple, short words. Damn hard finding the right ones.”

    I agree. Some posts: too many words.

  37. Frank,
    Actually language – like economics – does a good job of showing how a complex system can arise and evolve and become more effective through emergence and with almost no top-down design. E.g., how “OK” has spread through different “ecosystems”.

  38. Chaucer and, especially, Shakespeare, not to mention Anthony Burgess, are great examples of neologism creators, and I have no problem with new words being introduced (I love Simpsons coinages especially). So, yes, in that sense, language IS a user-modifiable technology. But every technology has standards to allow it to function optimally, and with language’s existing words there ARE agreed upon standards, in dictionaries. If you choose to use an existing word in a way that no one else has, or that consensus has not agreed upon, you’re perfectly welcome to, but it won’t necessarily get you understood. You can use “infer” for “imply” (or vice versa) all you like–it’s not going to make those two words into synonyms.

    The writer seems to be conflating new coinages with…innovative uses of existing words, and those are not really the same issue.

  39. “We shall not be rid of God until we are rid of Grammar” –Nietzsche

    This quote loses its meaning when one supposes that Nietzsche (a philologist, mind you) would have been happy to see them go.

    Grammar-nazis are lame. But anti-grammar-nazis are just as lame.

    Consider this list of words which have lost their original meaning, only to be replaced by a meaningless pseudo-sentiment:

    Freedom: now means “America,” or [your country here],whatever (if anything) it meant at some point in the past.

    Fair: now means “equitable according to the commonsense normative standard which everyone takes for granted,” rather than “beautiful.”

    Christian: now means… nothing. (“Love thy enemy” does not characterize the attitude of ‘Christians’ toward their bona fide enemies)

    Hypocrite: From a Greek word meaning, “one who plays a part on the stage.” In English, means, acc. to OED, “one who pretends to have feelings or beliefs of a higher order than his real ones.” Under this strict definition, ALL SUCCESSFUL POLITICIANS ARE (and must be)hypocrites. Now means, “one who says one thing but does another,” or “one who breaks the golden rule.

    The real problem is not that new words are uglier, even if/when they are.

    The degeneration ( regeneration, if you prefer) of language is a symptom of societal baselessness. IMHO

  40. Thanks for sharing this one, Cory — English grammar has historically been descriptive, not prescriptive, and that shouldn’t change just because we have dictionaries and stuff. Wait a minute — didn’t we have this argument ONE HUNDRED YEARS AGO? Come on, slang ain’t goin nowheres. Woot!

  41. @19 (ndollak), @31 (Enochrewt):

    “Verbing” is a language feature, not a bug. Sometimes it’s called zero or null morphology, sometimes zero or null derivation.

    Do you “search for foo on google” or do you “google foo” (not to be confused with google-fu)? Regardless, you’re participating in one sort of zero derivation or another — or maybe you “conduct a search for foo on google”?

  42. #50: Even if it is a feature, it bugs the crap out of me. I guess that there are other things in life that are acceptable that annoy me as well.

    Heck, Blingbling is now in the Oxford English Dictionary, and I have no problem with that. It’s the verbing that gets me. In my example with “glitch” it creates an umbrella definition that makes the action taken by the gamer less specific, while giving the appearance that it is more specific. I guess that’s my beef with the entire thing, is that at the heart of it, it muddies the meaning of glitch instead of further defining it. Or something.

    I has the troubles with the englishes, I dun know no languages.

  43. Regardless of our opinions, English *is* user-modifiable, in that no one has the actual power to enforce a ban on new words. I used to work for a prominent encyclopedia, and we had all sorts of problems with the Real Academia Espanola, who *do* have the power to dictate what is and what is not a part of the Spanish language. We could not use a word in the Spanish version of our encyclopedia which they did not approve of, no matter how widespread it was in actual daily use. They are a very conservative body, which makes it difficult to have something written in “standard” Spanish which does not seem out-of-touch to, say, the average Mexican reader.

    Granted, mis-spellings are mis-spellings, but after dealing with the RAE, I welcome our lack of neologistic overlords with open arms.

  44. @55 (Enochrewt):

    Well, some specific examples of it may bother you, but some clearly don’t (e.g., “bug” and “muddy”).

  45. …The big question isn’t whether English is a user-modifiable technology, but whether it’s covered under Open Source guidelines and a CC license :-)

  46. #55:

    In my example with “glitch” it creates an umbrella definition that makes the action taken by the gamer less specific, while giving the appearance that it is more specific.

    I’m not sure how you figure that “glitching” is less specific than “cheating”? The term I’m familiar with, by the way, is “exploiting” – not “exploiting the flaw in X” just “exploiting”, but it sounds like they’re synonymous in this context.

    Glitching is “cheating by exploiting a bug in the game”. That’s more specific than “cheating” – which could include cheating by using a third party piece of software, by modifying his own copy of the game, or by throwing peanuts at the other player to distract them at key moments in the game.

    I can see not liking “glitching” because you don’t like the root word, or because you think the root word implies a different meaning and you think they should have used another root. Personally, I find the term mildy annoying because, to me, a glitch is a transient problem that can have sources outside of the program (bad ram, bad hard drive sectors, packet loss…) – but “bugging” already has an established meaning and is in moderately common use amongst teenagers in that meaning, so I doubt “bugging” will get re-purposed.

  47. #56:

    I used to work for a prominent encyclopedia, and we had all sorts of problems with the Real Academia Espanola, who *do* have the power to dictate what is and what is not a part of the Spanish language.

    By your description, they do NOT have the power to dictate what is or is not Spanish. Only the power to dictate what gets DOCUMENTED as being part of the language.

    The prime minister of Canada or the premier of Quebec could bully a bill through their respective legislative bodies that says that “Arrete” must now be removed from every French dictionary in the country (or province) but that’d have very little effect on usage (for one thing, it’s on every stop sign in Quebec).

  48. @46 I agree. While my post was in jest, language is evolution in process. When “higher powers” try to manage language, people will make it be what it needs to be.

  49. I’m surprised no one’s invoked Humpty Dumpty yet, so I’ll do the honors:

    `When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

    `The question is,’ said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

    `The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master – – that’s all.’

    Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. `They’ve a temper, some of them — particularly verbs, they’re the proudest — adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs — however, I can manage the whole of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!’

    `Would you tell me, please,’ said Alice `what that means?`

    `Now you talk like a reasonable child,’ said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. `I meant by “impenetrability” that we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life.’

    `That’s a great deal to make one word mean,’ Alice said in a thoughtful tone.

    `When I make a word do a lot of work like that,’ said Humpty Dumpty, `I always pay it extra.’

  50. Can’t resist joining in despite the futility…English WILL get mangled/modified (delete as applicable) whatever anyone thinks or says or does – and I’m not saying I approve.

    #52 – if “I could care less” really does mean what most (mostly American) people who use it intend it to mean, then I could not care less.

    Turning nouns into verbs bugs me a lot, too. As does extending perfectly good words unnecessarily. If my house is burgled by a burglar, it must be a burglariser who burglarised it.

    IMHO it comes down to new uses, new words that fill gaps, and can extend or modify the language, meeting a need, on the one hand – but not misuse where there are perfectly good words available that would do the job, on the other.

  51. @ NPRNNCBL #53:

    The truth about infer is not actually complex at all. If you go to the OED itself, instead of reading about someone else having gone to the OED, you find this:

    4. To lead to (something) as a conclusion; to involve as a consequence; to imply. (Said of a fact or statement; sometimes, of the person who makes the statement.)
    This use is widely considered to be incorrect, esp. with a person as the subject.

    There follow examples from 1530 to 1973, giving examples of this particular usage. But all this proves is that the confusion of “infer” and “imply” has a long and honorable history. It doesn’t actually mean (or, um, infer) that infer CAN mean imply; merely that people have historically mis-used it so.

    When in doubt, go to the etymology: “infer” is from the Latin verb “inferre,” in turn made from the verb “ferre: to bear, to carry” + “in” (as directional). Its meaning holds inwardness–to carry into a place, as your mind does with a concept when you infer something from it. It is not an active action, like imply (from the Latin “implicare” (in + plicare, to fold), a twining together, which, coincidentally, had a connotation used by Cicero and Seneca “to make (words, a situation) confused, involved, complicated.”

  52. My mother was not a native English speaker, and she got her PHD in the U.S. There was always a lot of pride behind her usage of the English language.

    She would get infuriated at my “poor language skills”, saying that I sounded uneducated, and I remember replying,

    “Language is a fluid thing, its simply a means of communicating concepts to others, and as long as what I have said was understood, than my language was a success.”

    Then I would usually go and ruin it by saying she weren’t the bossa me anyway, or somethin…

  53. I seem to have an inability to infer what by implication was intended…What Nietzsche was trying to say was that God, like grammar, is in the eye (under the thumbscrew) of the (tyrannical) Beholder. Or is it in the ear of the audience?

  54. #60: Actually, when people use the term “glitching” it’s because they don’t know what that person is doing to cheat, and most of the time cheating isn’t happening. Maybe that’s what bugs me about it, is it’s an excuse. If the user of the term says “OMG Player X is cheating!” and player X obviously not, the person that said it is usually just automatically branded as a crybaby. Replacing cheating with glitching leaves a wider gray area that is open to interpretation. Is it latency? Is Player X using something like the BXR “glitch” such as in Halo? Has Player X managed to get outside of the level geometry? Is there some sort of other tomfoolery going on? The term glitch in video games used to mean something specific and definable, now it’s meaning has grown more diffuse. In short it’s a sort of moron’s excuse. We don’t need more words like that.

  55. Eh ol’ Nietzsche was probably just adverting to the fact, little understood in the 19th C. or then thought of, that language both conditions and limits thoughts. Also, perhaps playing a-“pun” with the misunderstood concept of the Logos….

  56. Remember ol’ Nietsche was an ol’ german, not an english speaker, and language is the modifiable tool, English is just one color of “hammer”…

  57. #65 KLG19: The LL discussion is more than someone having gone to the OED; it includes a discussion of the history of the OED entry itself, in particular the usage note you mention, as well as the Merriam-Webster entry, the editorial process involved, and instances not cited in the OED. Either you didn’t read the whole post or are misrepresenting it as “someone else having gone to the OED.”

    I don’t disagree about the meanings of “infer” and “imply” — but note that the OED says “Imply retained the classical L. sense of implicare, from which sense 2 appears to be a strictly English development,” where sense 2 is “To involve or comprise as a necessary logical consequence“. So “imply” (as used in contrast to “infer”) has changed meaning from the Latin; does this make it incorrect?

    My point is not to quibble about “infer” actually meaning “imply” in the standard language, either currently or historically, but rather to point out that meaning and correctness are transient, in contrast to many people’s beliefs or desires about language. If everyone used these terms interchangeably, then they may eventually be judged as synonymous — but certainly not by those of us who cling to their established meanings.

  58. Somebody contact the OED or the American Heritage folks.

    Cromulent, adj.: 1) Describing an incorrect/improper word whose meaning is plainly understandable in the context of informal speech or writing. 2) Identifying a word that sounds correct and therefore is considered to be a real word, although it is not. 3) An incorrect/improper word whose misuses are considered to be acceptable, based on a collective understanding of the word’s intended meaning.

    Maybe a lame first attempt at a definition (well, probably not the *first*), but it’s a useful addition to English vocabulary. It would be great to someday read an essay on cromulence in late Joyce (which is a tricky problem, because it will require defining “cromulence” in relation to slang, nonsense words, onomatopoeia, mispronunciations, etc.).

  59. Enochrewt,

    Call me when boingboing is in the O.E.D.


    To understand others
    And be understood by all,
    Know all the big words,
    But use the small.

    It’s advisable to write and speak in such a way that people don’t laugh at you unless you want them to. I used to teach English, and that’s about all the rationale I had for vocabulary, grammar, spelling, syntax, etc. Students understand.

  60. I try not to become a prescriptivist in English, though I have a cache of peeves, like misuse of “literally” and it’s/its, the latter of which is probably a losing battle.

    But if I say something like “That’s not even a real word,” then I’m probably implying that the person I’m talking to hasn’t been making sense for quite some time, and the alleged non-word isn’t helping the situation.

  61. A point not yet brought up!: yes, all languages are user-modifiable (and license -free). IIn reply to the self-deprecating folks as well as the prescriptivist contrarians:

    It’s morphologically sound? It’s a word.

    And who’s kidding- since when does a complex morphosyntactic construction belong in any dictionary? In any given English corpus, the hapax legomena (unique words) usually aren’t weirdo rare words or exceptionally affixed words; they’re complex or uncommon morphological constructions made of a normal base morpheme with common affixes- “warmness” is rarer than “warmth”, for example, though both are linguistically acceptable in English. “Opticality” is a rare usage and isn’t “in the dictionary”, but it’s morphologically sound… I could go on & on…

  62. This is the most fregnellant entry I’ve seen on bb in quite some time.

    Yes, English is user-modifiable. But (to continue with the metaphor) once you’ve done that, compatibility issues arise.

    So do you want to communicate or do you want to use creative language? There’s a trade-off there.

    Whether you believe in the bible or not, there’s a real lesson in the tower of Babel story.

  63. “Language is a fluid thing, its simply a means of communicating concepts to others, and as long as what I have said was understood, than my language was a success.”

    Agreed, from a certain perspective on success.

    But whether something is *allowed* or not, or *correct* or not, does not equate to whether it is *good* or not. We can still make quality judgements about language as we see fit.

    The film Titanic was a success. It brought in box office revenue far exceeding its production cost (the objective of its creators). I can still evalulate it as a failure and of poor quality by my own standards, whilst recognising that yes, it achieved what it was meant to by someone else’s.

  64. Oh, ha ha, and no I’m not trying to coin “evalulate”.

    Typos, the radioactive mutant goop of language evolution.

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