Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Refudiating (and Measuring Words) Since 2010

Following up on last year's "unfriend" as Word of the Year, it's time we spoke about the word "refudiate." I was a bit dismayed when I heard last month that the New Oxford American Dictionary had selected Sarah Palin's malapropism as the 2010 Word of the Year. (Note that I was just as disgruntled when I had heard "bootylicious" had been added to the Oxford English Dictionary a few years ago.) Palin's use of the word combined "refute" and "repudiate" and probably was an innocent typographical error when she Tweeted it this past July (not that the p and f are anywhere near one another on a keyboard). People attacked her almost immediately for her ignorance and for ridiculously inventing new words, especially when she discovered she had something good going on and she began using it on a regular basis. Eventually she defended herself by Tweeting that, like Shakespeare, she could invent words too because English was constantly evolving.

Now, as much as it kills me to admit this, she was right about that. In fact, it's strangely coincidental that soon after the news broke about the Word of the Year, I went to the British Library in London and visited the special exhibition Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices. Conceptually, this exhibition was fascinating, and it had on display texts from scrolls and codices to modern-day advertisements and letters. The show is about the history of the English language both in written and spoken form, covering its Anglo-Saxon and Celtic origins, the heavy influence of Norman French with William the Conqueror, Shakespeare and the evolution of modern English, all the way through the way imperialism brought new words into English. But the exhibition also had to do with issues of grammar, syntax, and spelling. In fact, one of the more interesting parts was when they pointed out that people have been worrying since the 1600s about the standardization of the language and its corruption through the introduction of new unapproved words. And just when you thought things like text message abbreviations were a new thing, with phrases like "Thx for ur msg - c u 2nite!", the exhibition showed at least examples such as a handwritten letter from the 1890s where a woman used the same type of abbreviation to write to her friend. In other words, phonetic abbreviations are nothing new.

The British of course still think their version of English is the correct form, and who are we to judge, but what is interesting is that we all accept variants of the same tongue. We spell some words differently, like "color/colour," we use different words to say the same thing, like "elevator/lift," and we even pronounce some words differently (Americans say "premiere" with the accent on the second syllable; Brits put the accent on the first syllable). But it's still English, and no one questions these variations in use. If I learned anything from the exhibition, it's that the English language has been and continues to evolve, so perhaps we shouldn't worry too much about where it's heading and how new words are introduced.

So, yes, Shakespeare did invent new words, and so did Chaucer, and literary/cultural theorists like Roland Barthes and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick did it with regularity too, but we're more willing to accept new words from them because they were great writers and thinkers. Hey, even I've made up new words at times! One of my favorites is "Britty," which I use to describe a certain type of British comedy that is dry and witty. But who is Palin to make up new words? Palin is...well...these days she's an Alaskan housewife who shoots caribou on her TLC reality television program (and who also apparently still claims she doesn't want to be President, even though Glenn Beck thinks that makes her just like George Washington, so she probably will run for President...but I digress). Does that qualify her to invent new words? But wait--actually it turns out that she didn't invent the word at all. According to this NPR report "it had appeared in literature several times more than 30 years ago." So Palin just made it popular, and it's that popularity which has earned its place in the dictionary.

In case you were wondering, though, if "refudiate" also was the top word in English in 2010, it may surprise you to discover that the Global Language Monitor claims it was only #4. The top word was "spillcam" followed by "vuvuzela" and "narrative." The Global Language Monitor records word usage on millions of websites, news articles, blogs, etc. Now, when you first think about this, it seems to suggest that the words then were the most popular words of the year, but actually they were simply the most frequently reported words. The only reason why "spillcam" became such a popular term was because of the oil spill crisis and every news agency in the world reported on it. In contrast, I have no memory of a single person I know ever actually saying the word "spillcam." So this record of top word usage is useful in telling us the most important words in a given year, but they also become dated very quickly and can disappear by the next year.

Measuring words usage is all the rage now, thanks to the digitization of books, and there are some new interesting studies that never could have been done before in the same way. True, there were concordances to the Bible and Shakespeare. A concordance counts the number of times a word has been used, so you find out how popular a word was in a given text or by a particular author. But to measure word usage in publishing over a few centuries never could have been done by a single individual in one lifetime. Digitization has made this possible. For instance, NPR had a report about Google Labs conducting studies on the words appearing in the nearly 15 million books they have digitized so far. They've generated a test system that allows you to create fascinating graphs so you can see how frequently words were used or cited at different periods in time. For instance, I searched for the names Canova and Thorvaldsen, two of the most important sculptors during the 19th century. The high spike on Canova's name in the mid-1820s must be because he had died in 1822, but the overall comparison shows us that Canova was apparently discussed more frequently than Thorvaldsen. But this isn't a perfect system either. One assumes that the popularity of particular words matched the ongoing increase in the publishing of books themselves, but we shouldn't assume that is true. Regardless, this doesn't negate the very useful and quite fascinating sense that we can now see how popular (or not) certain words or ideas were in published texts over time.

Measuring word usage also has a silly fun side too. A Facebook application now ranks for you the most popular words you used in your regular status updates, suggesting perhaps that those words have some meaning to your personality. When I did mine this week, my top word was "now," followed by "out," "tea," and "think." Are they accurate? I'll let the people who know me well make that determination for themselves. In the meantime, I think I'll make a cuppa tea and think about this topic some more.


Sherman Clarke said...

I've been using "refudiate" as much as I can. Thanks for your take on the list, and language evolution in general. The ngram tool has been amusing to experiment (and play) with and I'm sorry that Thorvaldsen hasn't done better. When I did a silly new-cultural-theory-speak experiment on "reify, indexical, lacanian", I was sorry to see how low lacanian fell. Then I capitalized it and, voilĂ , it was way higher. Who'd a thunk it was case-sensitive, even though they told us it was?

bklynbiblio said...

Thanks, Sherman! The funny thing with Thorvaldsen is that up until the mid-20th century, his name was always spelled with a 'w' (Thorwaldsen), but even then it doesn't change all that much. It IS interesting to know that it was case-sensitive - I didn't know that! The fun part is playing with specialized words like 'indexical' because it does give a sense that these modern times may not be so modern after all.