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800 Words

All That Sass

January 15, 2006|Dan Neil

I recently received a news release announcing that the Word of the Year for 2005 was, according to editors of the Webster's New World College Dictionary, "infosnacking"--which denotes the random, through-the-day nibbling of news, e-mail and information on the Web. This surprised me on a couple of counts, the first being that I'd never heard the word, and the second being that the word was so silly and half-assed.

I'm sorry, but if you try to play "infosnacking" in a Scrabble game against me you're going to be picking up tiles for a week. When did the bar for word-ness get to be so appallingly low? And if the witless "infosnacking" is a word, why not say "newsnoshing" or "datamunching," both of which are more euphonious?

I demanded an explanation.

"It's a dreadful word, yes," agreed Michael Agnes, editor-in-chief of Webster's NWCD, who talked me off my ledge of indignation by noting that "infosnacking" did not actually make it into the 2005 edition. Word of the Year is an exercise in lexical currency. "The editors pick one word that tickles our funny bone or reminds us of something about the way language works, or reflects our current state of affairs," he says. "It's a word that has a story."

Still, Agnes didn't rule out that this bete of a word eventually could be immortalized in the sans serif type of a headword, should it catch on. "We're not the French Academy," he says amiably. Apparently, lexicographers long ago abandoned any notion that they were gatekeepers of proper English. If a word achieves a certain currency--if it is used often enough, long enough and in enough places--it becomes a candidate. "Bling" is a strong possibility for this year's edition, and "intelligent design" is a shoo-in. Somehow, "irritable bowel syndrome" managed to get in the 2005 edition ahead of both.

"We can be descriptive but not prescriptive or proscriptive," Agnes says. After all, "my idea of what is standard English and what is highfalutin' English and what is substandard English is not the same as T.C. Boyle's and John Updike's and Julian Barnes'. "

That's all well and good, but "infosnacking"? Sheesh. ("Sheesh," by the way, is a new entry in Webster's NWCD.)

I've spent the past few hours poring over end-of-year lists of words and catchphrases--ubersexual, wiki, vodcasting--and I find myself on the unfamiliar end of conservatism. Some words and phrases born in the stellar nebula of pop culture and technology are irresistible. For instance: metrosexual--still No. 1 on the touchstone website wordspy.com, the NORAD of the pop lexicon--so purely resonates with our experience of a well-turned-out urban man that it might as well have come from Shakespeare.

But it will be a sad day for me when I open my dictionary (Agnes' tome happens to be the official dictionary of the Associated Press) to find the word "flee-ancee," referring to runaway bride Jennifer Wilbanks, or "crotchfruit," a snarky reference to children, perhaps favored by childless couples.

As a person who navigates the world of words, I lately feel swamped with neologisms, droll catchphrases and pop-culture sass. I barely have time to digest "muffin top"--that is, the roll of fat bulging out of low-rise jeans--before I have to parse "whale tail"--the bit of thong that peeks out of those same jeans.

English professors and lexicologists might disagree, but from a user's standpoint it seems the language is experiencing a kind of cosmic inflation caused by the millions suddenly armed with the written word through blogs, e-mail, text messaging and other forms of instant, worldwide, key-stroked communication. The language, in other words, has been handed over to the pajama-clad mob. As much as I appreciate the demotic, open-source temporality of English and all its jazzlike improvisation, I long for one authority to tell me, in an ontological sense, what is and isn't a word. If only for Scrabble purposes.

I'm not alone. "People regard the dictionary as this sacred book in which they have 100% faith," said Agnes. "They don't even think of a human agency behind it."

How do pop words rise to the empery of dictionary citation? In his book "Predicting New Words: The Secrets of Their Success," Allan Metcalf proposes the FUDGE scale: Frequency, Unobtrusiveness, Diversity, Generation of other forms and meanings, and Endurance of the concept. A key feature of the successful neologism, says Metcalf, is that it is instantly comfortable and familiar, easy to wrap one's tongue around. Thus the seeming inevitability of "regift" and the snowball's-chance of "ambient findability," referring to the pervasive access to even the most esoteric info on which one would, um, snack.

A well-known lexicographer, Metcalf is executive secretary of the American Dialect Society, and the ADS' Word of the Year competition--decided at the annual meeting in Albuquerque, N.M., this month--certainly had some interesting candidates, including "bumper nuts" (fake testicles hung from vehicle hitches) and "exlax option" (referring to the hasty removal of troops from a deployment, especially from Iraq).

Maybe "infosnacking" isn't so bad after all.

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