Saturday, February 23, 2008

Bean-shopping with the N&O

Suppose you're selling magic beans -- or, better yet, offering consulting services for other companies' magic legume applicational needs. Sooner or later, you're confronted with a choice:

1) Pay actual cash money to advertise your services, or
2) Have people write articles about you, with the said articles appearing on the front page free of charge!

Well, that was a tough one.

Sure seems to work for Paul Payack and his Global Language Monitor, though. Not only did he get written up by the august Chicago Tribune, but through the miracle knock-on effects of wire service cluelessness, he's making the front page in the provinces as well. Hence the above, from the News and Observer (not available at the N&O Web site, so here's the link from the Trib itself).

Shouldn't we be breaking out the champagne, being word people and all that? No, we ought to be making fun of our wire editors, who apparently didn't do even the sort of minimal stooging-around-in-the-data that would help put such a claim into context. Had they done so, they might have noticed that it's not new. Two years ago this month, the same factola -- we'll cross the million mark this very summer! -- appeared in the Times.

In that tale, Payack's double-secret word algorithms had us at 986,120, with growth at 20,000 in the previous year -- impressive, given that the previous autumn, we were stuck on 883,485* words, according to the Florida Times-Union (in a column containing exactly 666** of the things). And why was Payack quoted there? The subject is hurricanes and their victims:

"The word refugee just caught on and people started using it, even though it wasn't the right word," Payack said. "Then it became politicized right away."

Payack is evidently fluent in English (particularly when someone calls him up and offers him some free publicity to pose as an expert on it), but he doesn't observe it very carefully. "Refugee" didn't "just catch on." People driven from their homes by natural disasters had been "refugees" in American news language for decades. It was a perfectly "right word" that, owing to some strange confluence of events, got dramatically politicized.*** But informed observation isn't the goal here; as long as you spell his name right (no periods with the initials!), he'll tell you any old thing. Even if it's a fairly destructive sort of lie:

The phrase that topped this year's ["most politically correct"] list was "misguided criminals," one of several terms the British Broadcasting Corporation used so as not to use the word "terrorist" in describing those who carried out train and bus bombings in London that killed 52 people in July, according to Paul Payack, the head of Global Language Monitor.

Goebbels would be impressed. Yes, you can find a BBC column referring to the London bombers as "misguided criminals." If you go to the trouble of reading it, you'll note that it also refers to the attacks as "savage" and "vicious" (if Payack's concern is the Beeb's alleged attempt to "strip away all emotion," he seems to have missed). And you might also conclude that "misguided" doesn't mean "poor innocent lads," but something more like "London can take it":

The huge crowds who watched and joined in Sunday's parade were London's answer to all the fear and anger and excitability of the past few days; a Churchillian hand-signal to the bombers.

Needless to say, the foamy-mouthed segment of the American right paid no attention to the substance of the column. A Language Expert had spoken, and that was enough to sic the dogs on the weeny media.

As word people, then, we ought to be preparing the tar and feathers for Paul Payack -- not rolling out the red carpet of publicity. And if anyone had listened to the two genuine language experts in the Tribune article (Allan Metcalf and Jesse Sheidlower) who dismantle the whole concept of the million-words countdown, the damn thing would have been blocked into the cheap seats. Instead, it's on the front page, where:

1) It reinforces the widely held (and often widely justified) view that journalists simply don't get the whole objectivity-and-evidence thing.
2) It takes up space that could be used for real news. (Speaking of science, wouldn't it be nice if the N&O kept its readers up to speed on Florida's latest tussle with evolution in the schools?)

Please. Nobody else run this preposterous story. And somebody send Mr. Payack a bill for the frontpage space.

* Up to 991,207 by December 2006 (Washington Times), with 986,120 having been reached around 11 a.m. Jan. 26 (New York Times). Magic beans are on everybody's diet.
** And published on September 11. The liberal media would like you to think that's a coincidence.
*** To such an extent that fearful editors started turning Kurdish refugees into "evacuees" in cutlines. Honest.


Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Over at Wishydig Michael offers him a new word: lexicanery (in which he, Payack, is currently indulging).

(I hate it when I can't the i from the j is the captcha...)

10:55 PM, February 23, 2008  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Er, in. In the captcha, obviously.

10:56 PM, February 23, 2008  
Blogger Phillip said...

SAN DIEGO, Feb. 20 (UPI) -- The proprietor of a San Diego-based Web site tracking the English language says the tongue is nearing the milestone of its one millionth word.

*** "The tongue.***

3:19 PM, February 24, 2008  
Blogger fev said...

I need to be reading Wishydig more often. (Though I have to admit I'm part of the crowd that finds "in his wheelhouse" completely unexceptional.)

UPI, on the other hand ... well, it's nice to know they're still there, I suppose.

7:05 PM, February 24, 2008  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Yeah, me too.

3:25 PM, February 25, 2008  
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