The Morning File: The 'millionth word' in the English language will be born Wednesday (No gifts, please)
Will you be doing the same thing as The Morning File author at 6:22 a.m. Wednesday? No, we don't mean picking through the neighbors' trash piles before the garbage trucks arrive, to see if there's anything worth pilfering. (We do that on Tuesdays.)
We will be celebrating the arrival of the millionth word of the English language that morning. The occasion has been so decreed by the Global Language Monitor, which claims to know about such things, even though it's impossible to really know about them -- kind of like your high school English teacher who pretended to understand "Beowulf."
At www.languagemonitor.com, a clock is counting down the seconds. Yesterday morning, it said: "The English Language Word Clock: 999,951. ... At the current pace of a new English-language word created about every 98 minutes, English will cross the Million Word Mark on June 10, 2009."
Because it is a sure-fire way to get publicity, the Global Language Monitor is happy to make this statement even though there is no certified arbiter of what constitutes a legitimate English word and how many of them there are. Nothing official will happen Wednesday morning to create that millionth word, although if Dr. Cyril H. Wecht were holding a news conference at that time, we're guessing the word would originate there.
The key point, according to Global Language Monitor chief word analyst Paul Payack, is that English is undergoing an explosion because of all the people around the world speaking it, as the shared language of business and technology. He says 1.5 billion people around the world use English (1.5 billion and one, if we can now count Evgeni Malkin).
"In Shakespeare's day, there were only [2 million] speakers of English and fewer than 100,000 words," according to the GLM Web site. "Shakespeare himself coined about 1,700 words. Thomas Jefferson invented about 200 words, and George W. Bush created a handful, the most prominent of which is, misunderestimate."
A recent article on Mr. Payack's million-word march in The Houston Chronicle noted that major unabridged dictionaries have only about a half-million words. Other word junkies have used other forms of the language, such as technical jargon, to already make claims of reaching a million. For such reasons, some in the linguistic-lexicography community -- and you know who you are -- are throwing wet blankets on the GLM million-word celebration.
Jesse Scheidlower, North American editor for the Oxford English Dictionary, noted that what makes a word "is a very complicated question," given to imprecision. Hence, different comprehensive dictionaries can be hundreds of thousands of words apart.
Geoffrey Nunberg, chairman emeritus of American Heritage Dictionary's usage committee, said of the millionth-word-on-Wednesday claim: "I think it's pure fraud." No imprecision there.
For Mr. Payack's part, as a marketer of online research services, any English word published at least 25,000 times becomes a candidate for him to accept as a new word. So he's now considering new vocabulary that includes "slumdog," "octomom" and "wonderstar" (to refer to people like Scottish singer Susan Boyle), among candidates to be proclaimed as the millionth English word, whether others like it or not.
For some reason, there appear to be a lot more English words than any other kind. Various dialects of Chinese only add up to about 500,000 words, according to the Global Language Monitor, and Spanish, German and Russian all fall around 200,000. So yes, if the outcome of World War III is settled by who can use more words, confusing the others' translators, we'll be in good shape.
Here's one word you probably have never heard, unless you were watching the Scripps National Spelling Bee recently: Laodicean.
It means something like being lukewarm or indifferent concerning politics and religion. Because 13-year-old Kavya Shivashankar of Olathe, Kan., knew how to spell it, she took home more than $40,000 in cash and prizes as national spelling champion. It was her fourth-straight Top 10 finish in the competition.
If you're one of those jingoistic, pureblood Americans miffed about an Indian-American winning our contest, you've got years of unhappiness ahead. Indian-Americans have won seven of the past 11 spelling titles.
If you're thinking they have an unfair advantage, because their own names are so hard to spell and they get more practice that way, we'd say that's just ridiculous. Except we have no better explanation.
First Published June 8, 2009 12:00 am