June 16, 2007

Popular acclaim for hangry

Crossword editors, constructors, and solvers all turn to dictionaries to confirm that a word means what someone says it does, to explore its meanings, or to check out its etymology. Sometimes dictionaries seem like unassailable, disembodied authority figures, but the members of the Dictionary Society of North America's are actual people devoted to documenting the English language in a useful way. I met a handful of them at the DSNA's New Word Open Mic this afternoon. Dictionaries can't coast along on old words, of course—language evolves and new entities need names. (Thus words like podcast, the 2005 word of the year for the Oxford New American Dictionary, are coined and legitimized.)

Erin McKean's the lexicographer who came to the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament this March and had a little side event with Francis Heaney for a Discovery Channel documentary. (Francis made a crossword with new coinages and old words that Erin wished to save from the "lexicographical dustheap.") Erin is the editor of the above-mentioned Oxford New American Dictionary (which I won a copy of when hangry garnered the most audience votes) and she smoothly emceed the Open Mic event.

So. Hangry. It's a word I first encountered in this New York Times article, describing the way one feels when hunger or hypoglycemia induces a fit of crankiness. I do not ever skip breakfast because I can't function if I don't eat. Hangry fills a need by aptly describing how I and many others feel if we let ourselves go too long without a snack or meal.

Now, some of the lexicographers at this meeting pooh-poohed the word. Too old for a new-word contest—it's been in use since 1999. Too muddled in meaning—some people use it to evoke anger with hankerings. But why did enough people vote for it to win me a dictionary? I'll bet every single person who raised their hand for hangry has either experienced hangriness first hand or is close to someone who gets unreasonable when hungry.

For now, the word has little chance of winding up in a published crossword puzzle. But I'm hopeful that hangry will gain currency and and eventually be used widely enough that the lexicographers will consider it a useful addition to the language.

The panel of lexicographers picked their own winner: newsrotica. This word was coined today by one David Epstein, who works in publishing here in Chicago but doesn't work on a dictionary. He'd been trying to come up with a word to describe the perfect storm of the 24-hour news cycle enabled by cable news, "news" stories with salacious aspects (think Paris Hilton, Anna Nicole Smith) but little real import, and the public's insatiable appetite for this coverage. David explained that newsrotica combines news, erotica, and a touch of the neurotic. During the Open Mic event, the lexicographers Googled the coinage and came up completely dry—this isn't a word that a bunch of people have thought up independently. There may be a better word for this concept waiting to be coined, but in the meantime, this post begins a Google trail for David's newfangled newsrotica.

Grant Barrett was on the panel of experts. He runs a website, Double-Tongued Dictionary, "a lexicon of fringe English, focusing onslang, jargon, and new words." I've had the site bookmarked for ages—it's a nice diversion.

Also in attendance was Charles Hodgson, who does etymological podcasting (an audio "word of the day," essentially) at Podictionary. Written transcripts of the podcasts are included on the site for those who prefer to read. (Yay!) I think he'll be posting a podcast of the Open Mic after the meeting, so look for that if you're curious. After browsing through a handful of posts, I just added this site to my RSS feed so I can get those hits off the etymology pipe without expending any effort.

I've long been a fan of Language Log, especially the posts that puncture the stodgy "rules" of English usage and document the rich history of violations of said rules. Prescriptivists may think they're taking us to hell in a handbasket, but I like this crowd's general approach to usage issues. For example, a few paragraphs earlier, I used the plural their with the singular every single person because his or her is clunky and his isn't gender-neutral at all. This post defends the use of a singular antecedent for they, and dammit, I approve.

Anyway, today I met one of the Language Loggers, Ben Zimmer. Oddly enough, he didn't come off as a rock star at all.

But isn't that more or less how you view lexicographers? Like celebrities in the world of word lovers? They're right up there with crossword constructors and editors—well, until you get to know them and discover that despite the geeky glamor, they just tend to be smart and interesting people with nary a bodyguard or posse in sight.