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.