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Monday, May 26, 2008

Our Mongrel Language Adopts Words So Fast We're Reaching for Millionish Status

Paul Payack, the guru behind Global Language Monitor, a language consulting business, and owner of which features a vocabulary building service I use to deliver a vocabulary word a day to my e-mail box, says that there are now nearly 995,000 words in English and that the language is growing so fast that it will butt the million mark sometime this year. By contrast, Spanish has 275,000 words and French only about 100,000. That's because the French have been very busy keeping their language pure while English appears to relish its mongrel status. Of course, the internet has hurried the process along.

The story on this trend by Stevenson Swanson for the Chicago Tribune gives us a list of some of the newbies in a sidebar. They are:

Billary: Bill and Hillary Clinton
Godzone: A humorous name for New Zealand derived by combining the first two words of their motto "God's own country."
Locavore: Someone who eats only food produced or grown locally.
Blankie: Anyone who has children has known this word for a long time but it was just added to the Oxford English Dictionary.

English not only borrows words from other languages, our immigrants combine them for us. So, the article says, we have words like "Chinglish" from which we got phrases like "no noising" which means "quiet." Remember the indie movie in which the hispanic father dissed "Spanglish." He wanted to keep his Espanol pure but his kids who were raised American, didn't much care and mixed their two languages shamelessly to his chagrin.

It wasn't mentioned but poets, too, play with the language and sometimes it sticks. I often push words together to make one word and sometimes combine two words into one that sort of sound like what they are meant to describe. The other day I said in a casual e-mail something about "snoofing." Georgia Richardson, queen of humor and contributing editor for, demanded to know what it meant. I new what I meant by it but couldn't at first figure out how I had come up with it. Now I believe it is a combination of "sniff" and "Snoopy" of cartoon fame. This process is something I mention in my book, The Frugal Editor for it is something a good editor must contend with. Do we as editors or author-editors omit such words or do we encourage originality and the contribution such coinages make to the language? I lean toward the latter, but it is always a choice.

That something like like this should not be dictated by dictionaries often surprises the rule-oriented. As it happens, we may be the ones who tell the builders of dictionaries what to put in them as the other way around.

Now, I have to wonder if some of my typos may someday be included in the next edition of Webster's.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson edits and consults on issues of publishing. Find her The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success on Amazon. Learn more about her other authors' aids at

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