Chicago = know-how

“Every city has a single word that defines it, that identifies most people who live there. If you could read people’s thoughts as they were passing you on the streets, you would discover that most of them are thinking the same thought.”

from Eat Pray Love 

via bobulate  

What’s a Define-A-Thon, You Ask?

Your question is answered here, and it's (most likely) coming to a bookstore near you.
So if you want to walk away with a prize from the American Heritage Dictionaries (and have the vocabulary-chops to do so) I'd call your favorite local bookstore and ask them to participate sometime during National American Heritage Dictionary Define-a-Thon Week. It has to happen during the official week for you to get a prize … otherwise you'll just get a certificate [PDF] and the joy of winning.
Has anyone participated in one of these yet? I really want to see one. I guess I'd be disqualified from entering, though. 🙂



Guestblogging Alert

I tried to post this all day yesterday and was THWARTED by Blogger, so it's hardly an alert by now, but I'm guestblogging all this week at The Volokh Conspiracy (only their style is to hyphenate, so there I am guest-blogging).
Check it out if you are so inclined; I'm discussing Dictionary Myths. Yesterday's myth is that lexicographers are word-judging super-aesthetes. Today I talked about why the word inartful isn't in dictionaries.


The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, Present and Future

The sixth edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary has just been published today, which reminded me of this great bit of future-osity in William Gibson's Count Zero:

She watched Andrea prop up the kitchen window with a frayed, blue-backed copy of the second volume of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, sixth edition.

Now that's some good futurizing: a character is propping up a window with the sixth edition of a book that at the time Count Zero was first published, back in 1986, was still in its third edition.
Of course now that we do have the sixth edition of the Shorter, can we hope that real cyberspace, autonomous, slightly creepy AIs, and the rise of the corporation-state are not far behind? (Perhaps "hope" is not the word I'm looking for here.)
If you want more on the actual release of this edition of the Shorter and much, much less on dictionary cameos in science-fiction novels, then you probably want to check out this post by Ben Zimmer over at the OUP Blog.
[Disclaimer: I did not have anything to do with the editing of the Shorter, although I did help a tiny bit in putting together some publicity materials for today's launch.]


I don’t want to be snitty about this

But this AP article about new words in Merriam-Webster is not all it could be.

The year was 1989, and "snitty" started off strong. The word popped up in the Los Angeles Times in January, then appeared in the March and August editions of People magazine.
It was one of hundreds of words being tracked by editors at Merriam-Webster who are always searching for new terms to enter into the Collegiate Dictionary.
But something went wrong. The editors, who were eager to define snitty as "disagreeably agitated," no longer saw the word in national newspapers and magazines. Snitty fizzled. Although it was commonly used in conversation, Merriam-Webster's editors could only find three examples of its use in print. They had no choice but to reject it.
They began noticing it again 2005, first in Entertainment Weekly and then in several newspapers. With about a dozen examples of snitty being published, the term is now a likely shoo-in for next year's Collegiate.
When it comes to making it into Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, spoken word isn't enough.
"We need evidence that it's being used in print," said senior editor Jim Lowe, who is at a loss to explain snitty's six-year publication gap.

Well, it would be difficult to explain a gap that's not there. Lexis-Nexis shows 232 instances of snitty in newspapers before 2005, going back as far as 1978. There are seven instances of its use in the New York Times, 1984–2005. Google Book Search also shows pre-2005 examples, including one from Lucky by Jackie Collins (what, nobody at M-W ever reads beach books?) and a reference in John Ayto's 1992 Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang. It's also in the OED, with four citations from 1978–1987.
The thing is, though, that anyone who relies primarily on eyeballs-to-the-page reading (and the article states "The editors spend hours reading everything from science and medical journals to entertainment and fashion magazines. … New-looking words are highlighted, and the passage in which they are discovered is typed onto an index card and entered into a computer database.") is going to have this same problem.
Leaving aside the boggling "typed onto an index card" (!!! — why not enter it directly into the database and then print out index cards if you want them?) this process is a misuse of editorial time.
Instead of having editors read print magazines, why not dump the magazines into a large digital database and use simple sorting and search to find new words? People, even lexicographers, are notoriously inattentive when asked to perform visual tasks. Let the computer, which never sleeps (we're assuming it's not running Vista) do the watching, and let the lexicographers do the analysis.
I'm not saying a database will find ALL the new words — or that if a lexicographer sees a new word 'in the wild' that he or she shouldn't make a quick note — but, as fun as it may be to get paid to read Entertainment Weekly, it's not very efficient. I'd rather get paid to suss out how words are being used, not to find them in the first place. Doing new-word-finding by reading, instead of databasing, is like finding underground water by dowsing when you have access to a ground-penetrating-radar satellite.
I should also point out that, despite the inclusion of snitty in the OED, none of the current-English dictionaries has included it yet, as far as I can tell. Of course, none of them have started adding large-circulation popular magazines to their databases yet, either. So it's not like Merriam-Webster is really falling behind … it's just that they're not as far out in front as they could be. Think of what those 40 lexicographers (which is what the article says M-W has devoted to their reading program) could define with all that extra time!
The article also talks about the Seinfeldian regift, and says that other dictionaries, including the New Oxford American Dictionary, don't yet include it. NOAD actually does include regiftOrin Hargraves (who I think was the first person to define regift in his 2004 book New Words) has already pointed this out, though, so all you NOAD partisans don't need to email Adam Gorlick at the AP to correct him.


A Million in Prizes

In my last post I offered a prize to anyone who left a poem rhyming rynt and pint in the comments, and, since we had four entries, that makes it easy to award first place, second place, and two honorable mentions.
First prize was a copy of More Weird and Wonderful Words (but I didn't mention what the other prizes would be, as I didn't think I'd award any others at that point). But since I hate to pass up a chance to Make Everyone A Winner, I am, and they are, as follows:
Second prize: a schwa t-shirt:

Honorable mention: the latest issue of VERBATIM: The Language Quarterly.
I think GarbageDonkey wins first prize by sheer volume; Jonathan Caws-Elwitt second, and Taylor McKnight and Adjal honorable mentions. Email me your addresses and I'll get them sent off right away.
Congratulations to all the winners! You may now put "Winner, 2007 Dictionary Evangelist Poetry Contest" on your cvs.

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Poets rejoice! (Maybe.)

For a while I've been worrying, in a desultory way, about how to find out, computationally, how many words in English (how many already-dictionaried words, that is) don't have rhymes. By computationally, I mean "lazily, and in a way that doesn't involve muttering under my breath."
I've been thinking what one could do (if one were slightly more motivated than I have been to date) is sort all the pronunciation transcriptions in a largish dictionary in reverse order (that is, sort them from the final character to the first character) and then look for unique strings in the final syllables. I'm sure this is probably something one (again, one slightly more ept than I) could do completely in the Terminal window with *nix tools and the right text file.
I was reminded of this nebulous maybe-someday plan yesterday while getting my son some ice cream after dinner. It was rock-hard, so we put the container in the microwave, which has a handy "soften pint" setting. "Soften /pint/," my son read, as I pushed the button. "No, it's /paInt/," I told him, and we quickly discussed (the ice cream was melting, after all) that yes, it's /mint/ and /hint/ and /flint/ and so on, but /paInt/.
Today I remembered (while looking up something completely different) to do a quick search in the OED for the string /*aInt/ in pronunciations, and hey! There is a rhyme for pint! It's rynt, a word marked "north." in the OED. One of the citations, from 1820, is "Rynt thee, is an expression used by milk-maids to a cow when she has been milked, to bid her get out of the way," and so, in less cow-specific contexts, rynt means to stand aside.
But — does rynt really rhyme with pint, in use? Rynt is also marked "refl." in the OED, which means that it's reflexive — that is, it has a reflexive pronoun as its object. You can't just rynt; you have to rynt YOURSELF, which moves the rhyme back a bit from the end of the line, unless you invert the usual order and do object-verb. I suppose a good poet could make it work; I'm not going to try … (but if anyone feels like composing a poem rhyming pint and rynt and posting it in the comments, I promise to send the best effort a copy of More Weird and Wonderful Words).
But the point of this blog post was to point out that if you have a sufficiently well-structured database, such as is available to most lexicographers (and to the paying subscribers of the OED*), you can do this kind of specific search pretty easily, and then go off and edit Wikipedia.
[*note: if you do not subscribe to the site, check your local library, which may, and which, furthermore, may let you access it through their website with your library card!]

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