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One million

June 14, 2009

With much pomp, circumstance, hyperbole and stupidity, The Global Language Monitor made the ludicrous and inaccurate claim that the English language had just reached it’s 1,000,000th word. And that word? Web 2.0.

This auspicious event occurred on June 10th 2009 at 10:22 GMT. Citizens of the Anglophone world took to the streets to celebrate this epoch defining moment.

As you can tell, I’m somewhat scathing of this. Firstly, if I may be pedantic, “Web 2.0” is not one word, it is two. The GLM has an odd attitude to what a solitary word looks like – their 1,000,001st word for instance is “financial tsunami”, which is again not one word but two (and I would argue is a descriptive metaphor…).

GLM declares “with a new word created about every 98 minutes” Web 2.0 became the 1,000,000th word on Wednesday of this week. Of course, that implies that this word is new. Tautologically speaking, a new word can’t be one that has been in existence and use for several years, but that’s what Web 2.0 is. The Wikipedia entry for Web 2.0 has existed since February 2005. There is an annual conference on Web 2.0 called the Web 2.0 Summit held in California (you can read the news and coverage from 2007’s conference online).

It is not new, and not really a word, and as the BBC has pointed out the methods of the GLM are not taken seriously by lexicographers. GLM requires the word to be used 25,000 times online before it declares it a “new” word – this ignores all other print forms (which traditional dictionary compilers look at) and completely ignores actual usage.

For words to be included in the Oxford English Dictionary for example, they undergo a long period of rigorous scrutiny – the rule of thumb is “any word can be included which appears five times, in five different printed sources, over a period of five years“. But the compilers of the OED do not make the hubristic claim that these words are “new” to the English language, as GLM does. Merely that these words are new to the OED.

The bumblebee has always been able to fly, but exactly how seemed to defy what we know about physics and mechanics. Then, through careful study, what was always apparent was scientifically explained. The OED are like those scientists who have finally explained how bumblebees can fly – we all knew it, and now they can explain it. The GLM however would have us believe that bumblebees have only just begun to fly because they noticed it.

In truth, there are more than 1,000,000 words in English, and many of them are unknown, unrecorded, and have private and personal meanings. This public relations exercise by a marketing company that is effectively paid money to carry out Google searches, garnered GLM hours of media time. Given what Web 2.0 actually involves, the cynic in me can’t help but wonder which Web 2.0 client may have been engaging their services in the run up to the “discovery” of this word…

Paul loves the richness and complexity of the English language, but when marketing and PR stunts are disguised as socially useful research or news, then he can think of a few choice words to describe them, and they aren’t flattering…
3 Comments
  1. June 14, 2009 6:51 am

    I just about choked when I heard this on the news. Even my five year old son understand Web 2.0 is not ‘a word’. As you generously hint at – sounds more like a publicity stunt and sounds a little too “coincidental” that it should be “Web 2.0”

    I notice like financial tsunami the 999,986th “word” is Zombie Banks (Banks that would be dead if not for government intervention and cash infusion), along with carbon neutral (999,995) Jai Ho (999,999th word – stolen from Hindi since the explosion of “Slumdog Millionaire” at the movies)

    I had to agree with you Paul – all sounds like a bit of a wank to me. I don’t think OED has too much to worry about, especially in the intergrity stakes🙂

  2. June 14, 2009 9:01 am

    Given that most people only use a few hundred words a day, it seems hardly worth recording ‘new’ words such as this; especially when we have such a rich and wonderful smorgasbord already in front of us.

    *hark* do I hear 1984 and Newspeak knocking on the door? Call me Paranoid – but Does the near future hold a revered politician expounding the qualities of a much leaner, more usable language ….. why do we need 1,000,000,000 words they say?

    As a delighted character in 1984 says of the shrinking volume of the new dictionary: “It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.”……. perhaps it is just as true – the manufacture of meaningless words….. is it a beautiful thing too?

  3. June 14, 2009 10:58 am

    Paul,

    Right on! The way so many people “verb” nouns and adjectives these days, if you accepted the products as legitimate words, the language would have 3 million words in it now. Just because something appears a few times doesn’t make it a legitimate word.

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