I know it’s not cool to be a prescriptivist, but can I just say that Merriam-Webster picked the dumbest fucking word in the universe as their Word of the Year 2007? I’m aware that M-W itself didn’t make the choice, the eleven year olds who use their web site did, but isn’t that why they have all those lexicographers lying around? To point out when the rest of us are being idiots, and shut us down?

A few people wrote this week about M-W’s announcement, and I didn’t say anything, because I didn’t have anything nice to say. Actually I have one nice thing to say, which is that some of the comments on Wordie’s page for it are pretty good, including the links to various etymologies, and, especially, the prior art from Chaucer. But I got a few more emails today and figured, fine, I’ll uncork myself and spew some bile.

I’m not even sure I don’t like the word, but I hate that they picked it, and I’m not alone. It’s not just the winner that sucks, it’s the whole list. Conundrum? Apathetic? What do these words have to do with anything interesting or topical? The only good word of the lot is Pecksniffian, though why it’s on a list of words for 2007, and not 1857, is beyond me.

M-W is in the doghouse, along with William Safire. I’m now doubly glad M-W got voted off the island a month or so ago, when by unanimous consent they were replaced by OneLook as one of the sites Wordie links to.

7 thoughts on “m00t

  1. Hear, hear, John! I’d say this was a sign of the utter downfall of civilization, but there are so many other signs….

  2. Hi John:

    Great blog — sorry I’m late in responding to your original post.

    I’m pretty sure that caring about standards of language doesn’t
    necessarily make one a prescriptivist! In case you’re still curious: many of the nominees for Words of the Year list were frequently looked up on our Web site during the past 12 months.

    “Pecksniffian,” for example, was used by Bill O’Reilly a few times, and his use caused the word to spike in the daily list of words that are looked up online. “Pugnacious” was used by the late Gerald Ford to describe Dick
    Cheney. “Sputum” was a word that Katie Couric mispronounced on the air, causing a fuss. On a more serious note, “charlatan” was used by the Virginia Tech shooter in the ranting note found afterward.

    A few popular entries in the open source “Open Dictionary” were also
    included in the list of nominees, including “w00t” and “facebook” and

    With over a billion page views per year on the Online Dictionary there is obviously a lot of dross to weed through, including some words that are daily leaders (like “affect,” “effect,” and “love”), but once
    those are isolated we’re able to identify words that move up and down the list during key periods — giving a picture of what the culture is thinking about on any given day. As a simple barometer of how people use the dictionary, it’s hard to beat. We don’t know why some words get looked up
    (“apathetic,” “conundrum”) but we duly present them as facts. As you mention in your post, the pick of “w00t” has started lots of great discussion about language, and that’s all we could hope for.

    –Peter Sokolowski, Editor at Large, Merriam-Webster

  3. Hi Peter, thanks for being so sporting about my rant, and for explaining some aspects of the selection process.

    A well-known blogger once told me that blogs need heroes and villains, and I like the comic book drama of that. I selected Merriam-Webster and William Safire to be bad guys more or less at random. But anyone who can roll so gracefully with the punches is automatically my hero, so I guess Safire will have to go it alone.


  4. Peter, I’d love to have M-W expose those trends to thw world. When do people start to look up Halloween? Is it “pop” or “soda”, and can you code that by geography? Some awesome analytics waiting for you there.

  5. It would be fabulous to have that data. One could use it to record the occurrence of certain words in popular culture, such as “truthiness”. Such data would helpful in the future for looking back at our time and seeing when words were first looked up.

    However, data is a precious commodity in today’s world, and I don’t think they could just give it away.

  6. Data certainly is precious, but often it becomes more so once you give it away. People start to do interesting things with it, linking back to you, and providing you with yet more data.

    And, not to be too Machiavellian, but giving it away also gets people hooked on you as a source. Data is a lot more valuable once someone has built something that relies on it. And a one-time dump is rarely all that useful–you need a constant stream to do anything really interesting.

  7. You’re probably right John, I would quickly become addicted if I had access to such models. Even I had just a text dump, once I got it I could put it into a database, searchable on any number of different qualities. We could generate models about which words are searched for at which times, and given new data, we could predict if a neologism would catch on.

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