Linguists and word-formation

A little while ago I received a message from the linguist Ben Zimmer (of the University of Pennsylvania and Oxford University Press) in regard to my post about localitarian. Ben, one of the people who publicized the “Word of the Year” locavore, commented that he not seen localitarian before, but he had come across locatarian.

That word immediately began to grate on me. One reason is that the obvious connection would be to the verb locate, and a locatarian would be someone who locates something or other. (It could be, for example, a location scout in the movie industry.) But another reason that a francophone reading it might associate it with the French locataire, which means ‘tenant’ or ‘renter.’ It’s what’s known as a false friend.

Anglophones who post on the Web often forget that it’s the World Wide Web, and that the English in which they write is likely to be read by millions of Web surfers for whom it is not the primary language. Of course I don’t expect such awareness from ordinary posters. But I do expect it from linguists. I know that this expectation is naive, since it is not borne out by the record.

The record, in fact, is mixed. When Noam Chomsky decided to use grammatical for ‘idiomatic’ he was being Humpty Dumpty (“a word means just what I choose it to mean”), knowingly and willfully redefining what is meant by grammar. But when Charles Ferguson introduced diglossia — a medical term — for a concept for which the far more canonical diglossy was already in use, he was just being sloppy. (I wrote about this in an essay.)

When William Safire (a “language maven” but not, academically, a linguist) chose to denote an ‘incorrect correction’ by the portmanteau incorrection (rather than the regularly formed miscorrection, since mis-, not in-, is the standard English prefix for ‘incorrect’), he was just trying to be clever, which is his shtick (remember “nattering nabobs of negativism”?). But when Mark Liberman, a prominent linguist (who has often been critical of Safire), propagates the usage on Language Log while ignoring the possibility that the word may be misread by francophones or other Romance-speakers (since French incorrection — along with its cognates — means ‘incorrectness’ or ‘discourtesy’), he is not furthering the cause advanced by much of the posting on Language Log: respect for linguists as the guardians of language. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

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One Response to “Linguists and word-formation”

  1. Incorrection « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] from William Safire (“a correction that is itself incorrect”), but Coby Lubliner has argued that “miscorrection” is a better term for this phenomenon (which has come up […]

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