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Posted by on January 30, 2012

Humans never outgrow a fascination with new playthings, but after a certain age it is unseemly and unrealistic to expect a steady stream of surprise gifts from doting parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. One consolation for this loss is new words: clever coinages come along all the time to supply our craving for novelty. A word, term, or phrase that was unknown yesterday can be on everyone’s lips in a matter of hours or days because it fulfills a human need: a new thing to have fun with.

The soberer side of this phenomenon is the province of lexicographers and dictionary publishers, who must decide whether a newly-minted word is of sufficient importance and longevity to be included in a dictionary. Here’s the dilemma: it’s a commercial dead-end for a dictionary to seem out-of-date and old-fashioned, but a dictionary that allows every fashionable word to climb onto its bandwagon will quickly lose the respect of its peers.

Language watchers may have noted a spate – perhaps it was only a spatter – of news stories six weeks ago, grandly proclaiming “Tebowing now an official dictionary word” or “Tebowing makes it into the dictionary.” It’s the sort of headline that makes lexicographers roll their eyes heavenward. The flutter of excitement, upon analysis, turned out to be in essence a promotion from a website, The Global Language Monitor, which has been involved previously in various schemes to call attention to itself by baiting journalists on a short deadline with faux news. In fact, Tebowing has not been added to any respectable dictionary, and it’s too early to tell now whether it will be.

What (in case you’ve been living under a rock) is Tebowing? It’s a word based on the surname of Tim Tebow, quarterback for the Denver Broncos football team. He’s an evangelical Christian and he manifests his faith, quite unconventionally, by genuflecting. Yes: genuflecting. English already has a word for what he does, but the novelty of its being done by a football player in uniform, combined with the easy convertibility of his name to a gerund and the fun of saying “Tebowing” certainly encouraged the coinage. A coinage, however, is a far cry from an entry as a headword, and it seems unlikely that Tebowing will appear in any dictionary soon. The word got a lot of airtime when the Broncos pulled off a number of heart-stopping, eleventh-hour victories, but they lost their bid to participate in their division’s championship playoffs. No amount of genuflection seems to have been able to change the fact that their opponents played better football.

A trip down short-term memory lane shows that fad words like Tebowing come along all the time – and they go with equal frequency. Do you remember cyberchondria? It gets about three hits today if you try it in Google News, but for a few weeks back in the day (5 years ago or so) it was nearly as frequent as Tebowing was in December. Snowmageddon had a heyday in 2010 when the East Coast of the US was blanketed in several feet of snow, but it left lexicographers cold and the word does not yet appear in any standard dictionary. Matrimania – hyping of all things related to marriage – seems to have been coined around the turn of this century and it enjoyed a few days in the limelight, but has hardly been seen since. People enjoy words like these when they come along, and today unconventional reference websites like Urbandictionary and Wikipedia provide a place to record them, but speakers are fickle. We soon abandon these novel playthings because we know that others will be coming along soon.

Comments (10)
  • In 2009, one of the most respected dictionaries announced that they had added about 100 new words to their Collegiate Dictionary. We decided to study when each of these words were first recorded. To our surprise, the average first citation was over 25 years. Perusing the list, most of the words were eminently recognizable. In fact, college students who had graduated a decade before had probably used at least half of them in their studies. And the entire generation of Baby Boomers could now relax upon learning that the lexical unit ‘sock puppet’ taught to them by Miss Frances in the late 1950′s had now been recognized as a bona fide English term.

    Not so fortunate were the university students of the early 21st c.; If they were to listen to Stephen Hawking, or read the Sunday Times, or were interested in physics, philosophy or the Universe in general, they would not be able to look up the term ‘dark energy’ in that same dictionary until 2008. No worries, there were 10,000,000 references on Google, thousands of references in printed books, textbooks, peer-reviewed journals and the like. Fortunately, there was no need for “lexicographers to roll their eyes heavenward” but it did demonstrate, once again, that their methodologies were developed centuries ago and, perhaps, they were in need of a refresh.

    It is also curious to us, that history in the making is not held in higher esteem. Who among us would debate that political scientists studying US history several hundred years hence would not have a need to understand the term ‘obamamania,’ in its original context. Appearing 337 times in the New York Times is a strong hint. As for ‘snowpocalypse’, 470 references in the paper of record, over 1,000,000 on Google, and thousands of references to the ‘End of Days’ phenomenon.

    In 2010, a Google/Harvard study placed the number of words in the English language at 1,022,000. A graphic from the AAAS/Science as reported on NPR compared the number of words in the OED, MW, and American Heritage. All of these were from 70% to 40% off-base. Global Language Monitor’s estimate at the time was 1,010,000.

    Google/Harvard and GLM had arrived at results within 1/10,000th of 1% of each other. At the time the New York Times article on the historic threshold famously quoted several dissenting linguists as claiming that “even Google could not come up with” such a methodology. Unbeknownst to them Google was doing precisely that. Google’s number was based on the counting of the words in the 15,000,000 English language books it has scanned into the ‘Google Corpus’. GLM’s number is based upon its algorithmic methodologies, explication of which is available from its site.

    Scientists, scholars, government agencies, mathematicians and technologists have examined and test our work as have colleges and universities themselves.

    As for the two headlines you suggest are from GLM, we suggest a closer reading of the primary source. You will also read an explanation of the methodology used. (If you apply the same rules to ‘cyberchondria,’ it has about 300,000 hits in Google, 300 citations in Google books, as well as hundreds in Baidu, the Chinese search engine.)

    Posted by Paul JJ Payack, President on 31st January, 2012
  • Thank you for your comments, Mr. Payack. The subject of my post was coinages that emerge mainly for entertainment value, and their relationship to dictionaries. With respect to that subject, I stand by my observation that Tebowing is not a good candidate at present for a serious dictionary entry. This view is independent of your website’s activity of “ recognizing new words once they meet the criteria of a minimum number of citations across the breadth of the English-speaking world.” My reference to your website was simply to clarify that what lexicographers do and what you do are not related, since journalists who take inspiration from your site do not seem to be clear on this.

    Although it comes to the attention of lexicographers, raw Google score is not a criterion for deciding what words might go into a dictionary. If this were the case, lexicographers would be working up definitions of, e.g., Brangelina (1.37 million hits). The other words I talked about—snowmageddon, cyberchondria, matrimania—are also mainly entertainment words, and have a long way to go before their absence in dictionaries could seriously be considered an impediment to scholarship.

    Fortunately for us all today, the Internet provides many avenues for people to explore the meaning and usage of words. Dictionaries are now in transition, like many traditional reference works, for that very reason. Whatever changes they undergo, I believe that dictionaries will retain their place as authorities about language because of the conservative, methodical, and consistent approach they take to evaluating words for inclusion. Again, thank you for your comments.

    Posted by Orin Hargraves on 31st January, 2012
  • Thank you for an instructive post, Orin. I think it’s a good deal easier to remain ignorant of what tebowing is if one lives outside the U.S. If I were to stop 100 people on the street here in Galway and ask them if they were familiar with the word and its meaning, the figures would presumably be a lot lower than they would be across the Atlantic. Many faddish words are geographically or culturally constrained, though the internet makes them significantly less so than they would have been a few decades ago.

    Posted by Stan on 31st January, 2012
  • I think Orin’s right to make the distinction between words which encode a useful concept (and therefore have a good chance of staying around) and those which ‘emerge mainly for entertainment value’; these may burn brightly for a while (so they leave their mark on the frequency stats) but if they’re not filling a ‘lexical gap’, they will fizzle out before long. Arguably, words like ‘Obamania’ (and in the UK we once had ‘Cleggmania’, which everyone has now forgotten) are more interesting from a historical/political/sociological perspective than as linguistic items. I’m doing a series of posts (from tomorrow) on ‘How words get into the dictionary’, so Orin’s piece sets this ball rolling nicely.

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 1st February, 2012
  • And even those words that fill a lexical gap, as Michael puts it, may not make it. When I first started researching new words several years ago, I came across ‘flexitarian’ (a vegetarian who occasionally eats meat). It immediately struck a chord with me as a very useful word, as I knew many people who would fit into that category – we’ve got omnivores, carnivores, veggies, vegans, why not ‘flexies’? Hey, it was even voted ‘most useful word of the year’ by the American Dialect Society in 2003. Sadly the idea never seemed to stick, and it remains pretty obscure, with only the Collins English Dictionary giving it some kind of ‘official’ recognition (though they included ‘Cleggmania’ in 2010, so what does that tell us about the robustness of their inclusion policy?!). I guess there’s just no way of reliably predicting the longevity of a word – ease of pronunciation and/or spelling, catchiness, usefulness, longer-term relevance in society, all these things and more play a role, but ultimately a word’s sticking power is in the hands of the Gods ….

    Posted by Kerry Maxwell on 1st February, 2012
  • Interesting about ‘flexitarian’, Kerry. Chance must play a part in these myserious processes, but – on the principle that language change is rarely just random – i would hazard a guess that flexitarian, while it ticks most of the boxes, falls down because the word doesn’t include any reference to food (unklike carnivore, vegetarian etc) – which leaves scope for confusion (is a flexitarian just someone who tends to be flexible?).

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 2nd February, 2012
  • I heard what I think you’d call a collocation the other day on Prairie Home Companion. Garrison Keiller said that Lake Woebegon had ‘designer snow’ last week – some tasteful sprinkles of snow here and there. I love that expression, and think it’s perfect for this winter’s paltry snowfalls in the Northeast.

    Posted by Jill Robbins on 9th February, 2012
  • Jill: good observation. I think “designer” is used in this way enough to merit its own entry; there are several collocations in which it seems to mean “as if executed by design” — designer stubble is another one.

    Kerry and Michael: I had completely forgotten flexitarian till I read it here, but interestingly, I heard it used on a radio program the other day! So it did stick in someone’s brain. The commentator who used it also glossed it, obviously aware that the word is not in the mainstream.

    Stan: I will keep Galway in mind as a delightful place from which to escape the excesses of American culture!

    Posted by Orin Hargraves on 9th February, 2012
  • [...] Macmillan Dictionary Blog, Orin Hargraves and Stan Carey had some fun with new words, while Michael Rundell explained how words get into the [...]

    Posted by This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words on 10th February, 2012
  • I asked my boss today, do i start so-and-so tomorrow morning? She meant to say, “do, definitely,” but what she said was “doofinitely.” I thought it both funny and felicitous

    Posted by Richard Messum on 12th February, 2012
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