January 20, 2006

Who let the blawgs out?

It started with an open letter to the editor of Blawg Review from David Giacalone of f/k/a, under the heading "let's make the word 'blawg' obsolete":

I've come to know you as an articulate lover of the English language. As far as I know, you don't say "lawgic" or "lawnguage," drink "lawtte," bill clawents, or use Blawk's Dictionary. You don't call lazy associates "slawkers," and have yet to dub Jack Abramoff a "lawbbyist."

You're usually a skeptic and no fan of "cute." If linguists called their weblogs "blings" (or argonauts called theirs "blargs"), you'd probably smirk. But, note: no one else uses such verbal oddities in naming their weblogs. So, Ed, why do you, and other otherwise-serious members of the legal community, refer to law-oriented weblogs as "blawgs?" Why take an insider pun by a popular lawyer-webdiva (which should have been passed around and admired briefly as a witty one-off) and help perpetuate it?

The Blawg Review's editor responded under the heading "Who let the blawgs out?". I'll let you read the closely-argued brief for yourself, but (s)he ends the argument by playing the trump card of lexicographic democracy:

Enough of this bloggerel, David. ... Fact is, 'Blawg' use in law firms is on the rise.

In an ex parte communication, Ed. wrote to me to ask for a link expert testimony on the matter:

There's probably a lot more that could be said about the portmanteau "blawg" from a linguist's point of view, and we'd be very interested in your thoughts.

I'll observe that "blawg" is an unusual sort of portmanteau word -- it is indeed "a word formed by merging the sounds and meanings of two different words, as chortle, from chuckle and snort". However, the sound of one of the words (law) is completely contained within the sound of the other word (blog). At the moment, I can't think of any other examples of that kind. (I'm sure there are some others, at least among what Giacalone calls "witty one-offs", but they don't come to mind at the moment. Send them to me and I'll add them here.)

Beyond that, I don't have much to contribute, except the standard quotation from Horace about norma loquendi:

...quid autem
Caecilio Plautoque dabit Romanus ademptum
Vergilio Varioque? ego cur, adquirere pauca
si possum, invideor, cum lingua Catonis et Enni
sermonem patrium ditaverit et nova rerum
nomina protulerit? licuit semperque licebit
signatum praesente nota producere nomen.
ut silvae foliis pronos mutantur in annos,
prima cadunt: ita verborum vetus interit aetas,
et iuvenum ritu florent modo nata vigentque.
mortalia facta peribunt,
nedum sermonum stet honos et gratia vivax.
multa renascentur quae iam cecidere cadentque
quae nunc sunt in honore vocabula, si volet usus,
quem penes arbitrium est et ius et norma loquendi.

But why should the Romans grant to Plautus and Caecilius a privilege denied to Virgil and Varius? Why should I be envied, if I have it in my power to acquire a few words, when the language of Cato and Ennius has enriched our native tongue, and produced new names of things? It has been, and ever will be, allowable to coin a word marked with the stamp in present request. As leaves in the woods are changed with the fleeting years; the earliest fall off first: in this manner words perish with old age, and those lately invented flourish and thrive, like men in the time of youth. ... Mortal works must perish: much less can the honor and elegance of language be long-lived. Many words shall revive, which now have fallen off; and many which are now in esteem shall fall off, if it be the will of custom, in whose power is the decision and right and standard of language. [translation from C. Smart]

The crucial phrase is "licuit semperque licebit signatum praesente nota producere nomen", meaning something like "it has always been allowed, and always will be allowed, to coin a word stamped with the current year". And as Horace observes, whether a new word is accepted as the coin of the realm, and for how long, is not determined by lawyers or linguists.

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 20, 2006 08:57 AM