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Archive for January, 2007

Why Crispy, Faky, Swanky?

Wednesday, January 10th, 2007

Susan Lister and George Merkert have brought a couple of words to my attention that may reflect a trend. Susan asked me why we need swanky when it seems to mean the same thing as swank. George brought up faky which suffers from the same type of redundancy. When you add my favorite, crispy, to the list, it begins to take on the look of a trend. Is there a rule lurking somewhere beneath this trend?

The question is why do these redundant words (redundonyms?) exist? I know of no reason. My first reaction was that they represented the influence of motherese, the way we talk to babies when mothering them. This would place them in a class with other such words like horsy, doggy, potty, and yucky.

I also thought of the fact that English is losing its suffixes. Suffixes like -dom, -hood, -ery are used less and less often as English gravitates toward the language model of Chinese, which has no affixes at all (mentioned briefly in “Bad Grammar or Language Change?”) An interesting fact about this shift is that, while the suffixes marking them are disappearing, the functional categories these suffixes mark are remaining in the language. This means that fewer and fewer suffixes are marking the same number of grammatical categories resulting in growing suffix polysemy (multiple meanings).

My favorite example is the suffix -ing, which correspond es to a dozen Russian suffixes. This suffix now marks all the major parts of speech: nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs:

  • Skiing is my favorite sport (noun)
  • I was skiing when you called (verb)
  • I find the sport amusing (adjective)
  • Skiing down the mountain, I barely missed a tree (adverb)


The suffix -y is another that marks several categories: personal nouns (lefty, meany, softy), various adjectives (crusty, muddy, moldy), among others. Maybe -y is just taking over another function left behind by a suffix that is disappearing.

If the words in the first paragraph, faky, swanky, crispy, meant “somewhat Adj”, it might be taking over the work of -ish: faky “somewhat fake”. This doesn’t seem to be the case, however. The meanings seem to be identical crispy = crisp. The stems cannot be taken as nouns, so they are not adjectives like crusty and moldy.

This leaves me with the hypothesis that these are leftovers from motherese—not an elegant hypothesis but the only one I can come up with that fits at all.

How Many Words in English?

Friday, January 5th, 2007

I raised an important point about language in yesterday’s blog (the topic of which I promised never to mention again). In it I raised the issue of “potential words” and linked it to my article on “How Many Words are in English?”

InfinityAs I say in the article, this question really doesn’t make sense for several reasons but the main reason is that not all words are real things. Let’s compare the question to the question, “How many sentences are there in English?” No one asks that question because we create sentences “on the fly”, as they say in geekish, so that there is no way to count them. Moreover, sentences are composed of words which may be rearranged in near infinite ways.

Sentences may contain an infinite number of subordinate clauses:

This is the maiden all forlorn, that milked the cow with the crumpled horn, that tossed the dog, that worried the cat, that killed the rat, that ate the malt, that lay in the house that Jack built.

This sentence continues for four more verses where it ends perfectly arbitrarily for it could go on forever.

Now, words comprise morphemes, parts of words with meaning: amuse is a morpheme. -Ing is a morpheme that may be attached to amuse, giving amusing. Un- may be attached to that word, giving unamusing, an adjective from which the adverb unamusingly may be derived.

From unamusingly we don’t seem to have any where to go, so infinitely long words seem impossible in English. English is a language with a dearth of affixes (prefixes and suffixes)—only about 36, most of which are seldom used. Eskimo languages, however, have somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 affixes and words in those languages get very long.

Even in affix-poor English, there are word constructions that suggest infinite extension. Let’s start with nation from which we can derive an adjective national. Now there is a verbal suffix -ize which attaches to any word ending on -al. Guess how you get a noun from verbs on -ize: right, the suffix -ation, which puts us right back where we were with nation, doesn’t it? So why not nationalizational, setting us up for nationalizationalize, a process which could go on forever.

But, I hear you whining, these words don’t mean anything! In fact, they do. The problem is—well, there are two problems. The first is that once we get past nationalizational we don’t have anything in real life for all the other derivations to refer to. But that isn’t English’s fault; the fact remains, this derivation could go on forever if its outputs were necessary. In fact, I’m not sure what the sentence in “This is the House that Jack Built” refers to, either.

The reason is the second problem: the human brain. The human brain can process only a limited amount of information in one chunk, whether that chunk be a sentence or word. We can process longer sentences better than long words, apparently, but Eskimoes process words as long as English sentences, so that may be simply a matter of practice.

The biggest reason no one can ever answer the question, “How many words are there in English”, is because most grammatically possible words in English are potential, created when needed on the fly by using the rules of lexical grammar. Even if we could spell out all those rules (and I know most of them) and could predict their output, it would not help because certain combinations of rules, as we saw above, create an infinite number of infinitely long words.

To me this aspect of English is far, far more surprising, fascinating, intriguing than a hard number for the English vocabulary. I don’t know why anyone would even be curious as to what such a number would be. I am infinitely uninterested in it.

Promise: Never Another Word on ‘Truthiness’

Thursday, January 4th, 2007

I cannot get truthiness off my mind—a problem Stephen Colbert fans seem to suffer from, too. My problem, however, is that, despite the fact I included it in our Top 10 Sniglets List this year, it really isn’t a sniglet; it is a regular English word.

As Benjamin Zimmer pointed out in October 2005, the word appears in the Oxford English Dictionary with a quote from 1824:

1824 J. J. GURNEY in Braithwaite Mem. (1854) I. 242 Everyone who knows her is aware of her truthiness.

What is even more compelling, however, is that even though it is not in current dictionaries, it is and always has been a potential word in a class with toothiness, filminess, mistiness. The fact that most words are potential rather than real is a topic I have already written on here.

Denominal (from nouns) adjectives in English have two meanings if they are true adjectives (i.e. have nouns and can appear in predicate position): “having N” or “like N”, where “N” refers to the noun they are derived from. So toothiness refers to the state of having prominent teeth while fliminess is the quality of being like film.

So truthy is a regular adjective derived from truth and truthiness is the perfectly regular noun derived from the adjective meaning “the quality of being like truth”.

So, Colbert didn’t invent anything; he simply surprised those who are not themselves inventive and knowledgeable of language. We have again shown how vulnerable we are to hype. Since I will now be the last one to write about this word, I’ve proven myself to be the most vulnerable. Sorry. Never again.

Words and More Words of the Year

Tuesday, January 2nd, 2007

Every year more and more companies and websites get into the Word of the Year game. It all began with the Word of the Year published by the American Dialect Society since 1991. Its list includes “The Most Unnecessary”, “The Most Likely to Succeed”, “The Most Outrageous”, “The Most Original”, “The Most Euphemistic”, among others. It’s 2005 Word of the Year was truthiness. The wizened heads there are still mulling over this year’s choice.

In 2000, my partner at yourDictionary.com, Paul Payack, came up with the idea of having the Top 10 Words of the year. So he and I, along with his brother, Peter, came up with our first list, which CNN liked very much click here to see how much. Click here to see the rest of the series.

In 2003 Merriam-Webster decided to join the fray. They allow visitors to their website to choose the word and this year they repeated the 2005 ADS word, truthiness, which carried the balloting by a 5-1 margin, no doubt as a result of Colbert fans stuffing the ballot box.

I have continued the yourDictionary tradition at alphaDictionary, looking for the most newsworthy words, asking visitors and office personnel to help but making the decision here in the office based on web search counts and intuition.

Merriam-Webster is the biggest dictionary publisher out there and it gets a lot of exposure for its top word, no matter how they choose it or how unoriginal it is. However, as more and more web surfers are disappointed by it, we will probably see more and more top words, top 10 words—top 50 words.

The problem is that so many new words emerge now given almost universal access to publishing; the range of choices for the annual word is expanding faster than the top wordistas can chase them down. So the lists will continue but we seem to be heading for enough confusion to make them all irrelevant in just a few years.