April 24, 2006

Battling blang

David Giacalone at f/k/a is drawing yet another line in the sand:

We campaigned long and hard against the ugly-little word "blog" invoking our duty to a joint language legacy. Earlier this year, we crusaded adamantly to make the word "blawg" obsolete. Today, the f/k/a Gang proclaims its dissent over another spawn of "blog" - the neologism "blang." See New York Times, "Coming to Terms with a Wired Age, Part 2," by Lisa Belkin, April 23, 2006, in which -- perhaps trying to be a bit too hip and youthful -- the Old Gray Lady becomes an accesory [sic] to languicide.

David can rest easy in this case, I predict, because blang is not going to make it. At least, he can rest easy if he wants to -- far be it from me to stand in the way of long and hard campaigns, adamant crusades and proclaimed dissent-- where would the blogosphere be without them?

It's not because it's "ugly-little" that I predict that blang will fail, nor because it's any more of a threat to the English language than blog and blawg were. No, Blang will fail because the specific things that Lisa Belkin says that blang is supposed to denote (cutesy invented words like "cybermoment", "cylences", and so on) don't actually exist; and blang will fail because descriptive phrases like "web language" are perfectly serviceable for the relatively rare occasions when someone wants to talk about real instances of this concept; and blang will fail because it's not a striking, evocative or clever blend for "web language"; and finally, blang will fail just because nearly all neologisms do.

Why did blog succeed? For one thing, its referents are relatively concrete and very commonly referenced: people with web logs felt the need to reference "my web log" and "X's web log" and "the growing number of web logs" and so on, many times a day. For another thing, people talking about web logs often felt the need to use the term as a modifier ("web-log design", "web-log software") or as a verb ("I haven't been web-logging very much lately"; "I'm so web-logging that"). All of those uses are facilitated by a compacted form. And finally, blog is a clever blended reduction of "weblog", initially founded on the string-parsing pun "web log → we blog".

The interesting thing about neologisms, as I suggested yesterday in reference to Belkin's column, is not that they threaten our "language legacy". They never have, and they never will, no matter how much they annoy some people. What's interesting about neologisms, at least to me, is that so many people enjoy inventing them or reading about other people's inventions, while so few of these inventions actually make it into general usage.

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 24, 2006 08:55 PM