Saturday, January 9, 2010

I tweet, you tweet, we all tweet

Because the American Dialect Society is meeting in Baltimore this week, along with the Linguistics Society of America, I drove down to the Hilton and paid its extortionate garage fee to attend the cutthroat Word of the Year event.

The linguists were out in force* and had a grand time. Not to keep you in suspense, as you can see from Ben Zimmer’s account in Visual Thesaurus, tweet (v., to post an update on Twitter; n., such an update) won as Word of the Year, and in the exciting additional contest, google was voted Word of the Decade.

It was, however, the secondary contests that captured my interest. I was delighted to be in the majority — yes, they let the rabble in and allowed us to vote — for fail in the Most Useful category. Noun, verb, and interjection, it is, as someone mentioned, the apt word for the recent past. When the votes for the runner-up, the suffix –er, were announced, a glad shout of “FAIL!” went up.

Sea kittens, the inane substitute for fish proposed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, was the Most Unnecessary winner, and was enthusiastically proposed from the floor in other categories.

Hiking the Appalachian trail coasted to victory in the Most Euphemistic category, and death panel commanded a similar majority among the Most Outrageous nominees.

And, fortunately, Naughties, Aughties, and the other terms proposed for naming the first decade of the current century were the logical choices for Least Likely to Succeed. As someone pointed out during the discussion, people struggled to come up with a suitable term in advance of the decade and debated it during the decade; if there is no consensus now, there is unlikely ever to be one. My view: let’s just be glad it’s over.

It was a damn fine bunch of people crammed into a room much too small. In addition to Mr. Zimmer, I got to meet Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large for the Oxford English Dictionary and author of the F Word**; Grant Barrett of Wordnik and the Double-Tongued Dictionary; Mark Liberman of the University of Pennsylvania and Language Log; and Arika Okrent, whose In the Land of Invented Languages I reviewed here in May. It was a rare treat to meet people I hold in high esteem but had previously encountered only electronically.

And not just people previously known. I got to meet Richard W. Bailey of the University of Michigan, who is delivering an address later today on “H.L. Mencken and the American Language.” Mencken was a gifted and diligent amateur student of American English, and The American Language, though dated, has much interesting matter, vigorously expressed.

Professor Bailey also mentioned that the Library of America is bringing out Mencken’s Prejudices collections. Pray don’t allow yourself to be trampled in the rush to the bookstores.

*To the disappointment of my stereotypes, there was no crowd of older gentlemen with bow ties in evidence. Alas.

**Mr. Sheidlower’s tweet on the article in The Washington Post about the Word of the Year event: “WaPo article on #woty gets title of my book wrong, misquotes me, mistakes OED for Oxford UP. Damn MSM.” That’s why you should read Mr. Zimmer’s account instead.

I believe that The Baltimore Sun was not represented at the event. I'd check, but my search at has been hung up for more than ten minutes.


  1. This sentence from the Post article is, however, accurate:

    "A gentleman in a gray suit argues against 'H1N1' as word of the year because it would mean succumbing to the pork lobby."

    Regular readers of this blog should have no difficulty guessing the identity of the gentleman in the gray suit.

  2. I would hope that the reference to "a gentleman in a gray suit" was purely a literary device. That anyone who writes for a major paper would not know that gentleman's face is far too terrible to consider.

  3. I hope that you, at least, wore a hat suitable to the time of year. I deplore the way many American adult males present themselves in public.

  4. Nowadays, P. the T., we are at liberty to wear what we wish, and this is a Good Thing. Our host chooses to wear a hat; I choose not to wear one, except (a) outdoors (b) in the rain or the cold (c) when my coat or jacket lacks a hood. You choose to disapprove: good for you.

  5. I think "sea kittens" for "fish" is charming. And revealing. Also a major step forward for PETA, whose true acronym is PETCFA: People for the Ethical Treatment of Cute, Fuzzy Animals. That they recognize the rights of smelt is a major step. When they boycott "Treeless Mountain" for grasshopper abuse, call me.

  6. Cute, fuzzy critters are an easier sell for sympathy (and donations). Komodo dragons will probably go extinct before pandas, but they a) are reptiles and b) consider humans lunch.

  7. Speaking of Twitter, I stopped following you earlier in the month, and I'd like to explain why.

    I noticed that many your tweets draw attention to items on your blog, and since I read your blog anyway, the tweets seemed redundant. Moreover, your tweets don't indicate whether a given link leads to your own blog or somewhere else, and I like to know that before I click on it.

    Here's why it matters. When I read your blog (which I might do once every ten days or so), I read everything that's new since the last time I visited. Were I often to follow links from Twitter, it would be harder to keep track of which is the oldest article I haven't read, as relatively recent ones would look familiar. Then I might miss some.

    Many people distinguish tweets that link to their own blog with a special phrase such as "Just blogged". I think that's a good solution.

  8. This is sensible advice, and I have begun to act on it.