Dictionary Day – Contest


Dictionary by crdotx, on Flickr

Dictionary Day is just a couple of weeks away! To help celebrate this day honoring the “Father of the American Dictionary,” Noah Webster, we’re holding a contest: now that you’re using Wordnik as your go-to word source, show us how you’re putting your print dictionary to use. Perhaps you’re using it as a door stop, or to flatten some flowers, or as a booster seat for a toddler. Whatever non-lexicographical use you’re putting your dictionary to, we want to see it.

Spanish dictionary pages up into the air

Spanish dictionary pages up into the air by Horia Varlan, on Flickr

By midnight Pacific Time on October 15, send your photos to us via Twitter or email, or post them on our Facebook wall. You can enter as many times as you want. The winners will receive a Wordnik T-shirt and some other swag, and appear on our blog.

Definition of love

Definition of love by Billy Rowlinson, on Flickr

Interested in learning more about Noah Webster? Check out this new biography, The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture, by Joshua Kendall (here’s the review from the The New York Times). If you’re on the east coast, you may want to visit the Noah Webster House in West Hartford, Connecticut, the lexicographer’s birthplace. If you like corn mazes and lexicographers, you’re in luck, while for Halloween you may want to consider going as the Dictionary Fairy. Finally, for some inspiration for your dictionary photos, browse through this Flickr group, Lexicography and Dictionaries.

We look forward to seeing your dictionary photos!

This Week’s Language Blog Roundup

It’s time again for our weekly Language Blog Roundup, in which we bring you the highlights from our favorite blogs and the latest in word news.

First up, the Bee! Congratulations to Sukanya Roy! The eighth-grader from South Abington Township, PA won with cymotrichous, “characterized by having wavy hair.” Congrats also to all the spellers for their stupendous performances! Check back here on Monday for full recap, as well as a couple of fun announcements.

Last week the word world lost an important figure with the passing of Gil Scot-Heron. A “notable voice of black protest culture . . . and an important early influence on hip-hop,” he was a spoken word artist and musican who rose to prominence in the 1970s. You can learn more about Scot-Heron’s life and work at his official website.

The New York Times discussed another man of letters in its review of Joshua Kendall’s The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture. While most famous for penning that famous dictionary, he was also “notably dislikable,” as well as “[a]rrogant, condescending, humorless and socially tone-deaf.”  We still like him.

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal spoke with a modern lexicographer challenged with keeping up with today’s rapidly changing slang while Fully (sic) railed against an old Australian law that hasn’t caught up with modern times, namely the Summary Offences Act (1966), which rules that one may be fined for “antisocial behavior,” including “sing[ing] an obscene song or ballad.” Perhaps to avoid the fine, one may want to use one of Arnold Zwicky’s many suggestions for replacements of, shall we say, the king of four-letter words (we like frak).

The Columbia Journalism Review listed some other words and phrases one may want to avoid, as well as a recent word best described as “wish it wasn’t the word of the week” – Weiner (there, we said it).  Johnson considered legalese and misunderstandings around euphemisms, while the Dialect Blog blogged about l vocalization; the difference between a pub and a bar (pub = cozy, bar = sleazy?); the supposed Fargo accent; and the relationship – or lack thereof – between climate and accent.

While we’re on accents, NPR had a story on the curious case of the foreign accent, incidents of individuals suddenly acquiring an accent, probably as the result of head trauma, while there were reports that bilingualism is no big deal for the brain, and in may in fact be an advantage. While that may be true for most people, this translator of cruise ship memos, pointed out by Language Log, seemed to have trouble (“Timid and rapidly grown prostitutes, anyone?”).

K International wrote about the Amondawa, a small tribe in Brazil’s Amazon Rainforest, unique in that it has no word for time, and instead “see[s] events in the context of life stages and transitions.” They don’t celebrate birthdays or keep track of how old they are, but “change their names to reflect what stage of life they are in and their current role in their community.”  (Sounds good. I’ll be “Phyllis” instead of 40.)

The Word Spy spied TINO, a political candidate who is “Tea in Name Only” and does not actually ascribe to the party’s views; a haycation, or vacation on a farm; the last name effect, or how people with surnames closer to the end of alphabet are supposedly quicker to make purchase decisions; and our favorite, chartjunk.

Motivated Grammar pronounced the “one another” versus “each other” distinction “a bunch of made-up hooey,” and proposed that grammar mistakes may often be due to speedy delivery, rather than ignorance, perhaps one of the many arguments for why the world needs editors.

On a final bittersweet note, Ben Schott announced this week that he is leaving The New York Times, and that “after two and a half years, thousands of posts and tens of thousands of comments, Schott’s Vocab is closing its doors.”  However, he’ll continue to supply Schott Op-Eds for The Times, and you can always follow him on Twitter.

That’s it for this week. Remember, if you have a tip or would like your language blog to be included in our weekly roundup, let us know in the comments, via email (feedback AT wordnik DOT com), or on Twitter.

Punctuational Outburst

A friend in academe sent me a paper on the evolution of language, from this month’s Science. I’m reposting it here, so you can read it for free. Academic journals are a racket.

Even free, I’m not sure you want to bother. “Languages Evolve in Punctuational Bursts” is boring and largely self-evident*. But mostly just boring: If real language was as dry and devoid of life as most academics make it, I’d give it up. I’d stop reading, stop talking, and just grunt.

The authors lead with an implied claim that American English emerged abruptly as a language when Noah Webster introduced his first dictionary. You could say that publishing a dictionary is a sign that a language has emerged–that dictionaries are symptoms of language. But they insinuate that Webster published his dictionary and, ipso facto, the American Language was created. I can’t imagine the authors actually believe this, but it’s how their forced analogy comes out.

They then present the thesis that, basically, language evolves more rapidly during times of social upheaval. Sure, but how did they discover this? It was “inferred from vocabulary data,” and in a footnote they say their “materials and methods are available on Science Online.” Their methods would have been more interesting to me than their conclusions, and I wish they’d included at least a precis of them in the paper*.

I have no idea of the actual merit of “Punctuational Bursts.” I am, clearly, totally ignorant when it comes to, among other things, linguistics, and in general the academic side of language and words. But wadding through academic writing like this makes me want to cry tears of vomit. Can anyone recommend an intro to or overview of linguistics that’s actually pleasant to read?

* UPDATE: Maybe I was a little gassy or something when I wrote this. I just reread the paper, and yes, it’s rather dry, but I think that’s almost a requirement to get published in a fancy journal like Science. And I wasn’t previously aware of some of the limits imposed by them. See the comments for a response from one of the authors, and yet another lame, arm-flapping mea culpa from yours truly. Note to self: work on impulse control.