December 29, 2003

Words of 2003

Columnists at a loss for other topics are beginning to write year-end roundups, rating and ranking the year's contributions in areas from gadgets to celebrity scandals. Those writers who round up the year's words, unlike those who list celebrity scandals, seem cite authorities: this piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer quotes Erin McKean, "senior editor for U.S. dictionaries at Oxford University Press in New York", and "linguist Wayne Glowka, ... who is chairman of the new words committee for the American Dialect Society", while this piece from Reuters quotes "Paul JJ Payack, president of" (dotless J's original).

The American Dialect Society will choose its "word (or phrase) of the year" for 2004 in a session starting at 5:30 p.m. on January 9th, 2004, at the Sheraton Boston. Oddly, there is no live TV feed. I haven't seen a list of nominations, but perhaps someone more closely involved with the ADS can supply one. I'll be at the LSA meeting in the same hotel at the same time. I've never been to one of the ADS "word of the year" sessions, but if the Sheraton Boston's "Wireless internet in the Lobby" reaches the meeting room, I'll report from the spot. As Geoff Pullum has pointed out, the LSA welcomes visitors with open arms (or at least benign indifference), and I imagine that the ADS does as well, so stop by if you're around.

[Update 12/30/2003: Many outlets picked up the yourDictionary press release, which came out on Christmas Day: ZDNet, CNN International, ABC Online Australia, Seattle Times, Daily Times (Pakistan), The New York Post, WNDU-TV, KLAS-TV, Web User UK, etc. I suspect that the ADS choices will come too late to get similar uptake, but we'll see.

The Calcutta Telegraph has a fascinating piece featuring words of Indian English, mostly humorously invented.

Here's an article from the SF Chronicle, which asks readers to "[h]elp us choose the Word of the Year".]

Somehow the lexicographical pundits that I've sampled have missed the new word (or phrase) FRT (for Fast Repetitive Tick), which is a sound made by "bubbles coming out of a herring's anus". As Dave Barry put it

Isn't modern technology amazing? A hundred years ago, if you had told people that some day there would be a giant network of incredibly sophisticated ''thinking machines'' that would allow virtually anybody, virtually anywhere on Earth, to hear a herring cut the cheese, they would have beaten you to death with sticks.

For subscribers, here is a note in Science about the same topic, which may possibly exhibit the first use of the word "farting" in that august publication (though I haven't checked). In any case, this is certainly another confirmation of the change in linguistic standards that John McWhorter recently described.

Here is a page on marine biologist Ben Wilson's site with a link to the .wav file that Dave Barry wrote about so movingly. The primary reference is: Wahlberg, M., H. Westerberg (2003). Sounds produced by herring (Clupea harengus) bubble release. Aquatic Living Resources 16: 271-275. The abstract is available, for those with the right access, but the full article does not seem to be on line, with or without subscription. Crucial information:

The characteristic sound made by herring during gas release is denoted as the pulsed chirp. This pulsed chirp is 32-133 ms long (N = 11) and consists of a series of 7-50 (N = 11) transient pulses with a continuous reduction of the frequency emphasis (centroid frequency of first pulse 4.1 kHz and of last pulse 3.0 kHz, N = 11). The source level of the chirp is 73 ± 8 dB re 1 μPa rms (root mean square) at 1 m (N = 19).

I observe in passing that the first scientist to document the comparable human sounds in similar detail is virtually guaranteed an Ig® Nobel Prize.

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 29, 2003 03:57 PM