Monday, June 15, 2009

How to Generate a Linguistic Tsunami by Really Trying

No matter what we and the language experts might call him—word maven, English logophile, “The WordMan,” “a fraud,” “self-aggrandizing scammer”—Paul J.J. Payack has kicked up a worldwide linguistic storm trumpeting the supposed eminent arrival of the one-millionth English word. The Harvard-educated, California-based president of the Global Language Monitor has literally taken North American media for a fun, exhilarating ride—some linguists say he has been astutely conning the media—by making them indiscriminately report his pronouncements about the race of new English words to the 1-millionth mark.

Precisely what has Payack done to generate so much publicity for the 1-millionth word of English? And what was his motivation for embarking on such an apparently huge and (in the end) dubious undertaking?

Here’s how his own publicity material describes what he has been doing: “At the crest of this linguistic tsunami surfs Paul J.J. Payack, aka the WordMan. As president of the Global Language Monitor, he has tracked the latest developments—the fascinating hybrids, the bizarre etymologies, the lasting malapropisms—in the language shared by two billion of the Earth’s citizens. Aided by a worldwide network of similarly obsessed ‘language mavens’ and armed with his own powerful word-counting algorithm, Payack ensures that no new English word falls from the tongue or marks the page without being counted toward the Million Word March.”

Well, to spin that kind of colorful language, Payack must be a “WordMan” indeed!

Not everybody agrees with him, though.

Here’s what blogger Benjamin Zimmer, in Language Log last January 23, said about Payack’s enterprise:

“As regular Language Log readers know, Mr. Payack has been trumpeting the arrival of ‘the millionth word’ in English for some time now. In fact, he’s predicted that the English language would pass the million-word mark in 2006… and 2007… and 2008… and now 2009. As reported in the Christian Science Monitor and The Economist, the date that Payack has now set for the million-word milestone is April 29, 2009.

“In a previous installment of the Payack saga, I wrote that the Million Word March was ‘a progression that he turns on and off based on his publicity needs.’ So I can’t say I was terribly surprised to learn that April 29, 2009 just happens to be the publication date of the paperback edition of Payack’s book, A Million Words and Counting: How Global English Is Rewriting The World. What a stupendous coincidence that Global Language Monitor’s word-counting algorithm has timed itself to accord with Payack’s publishing schedule!”

Geoffrey K. Pullum, co-author of Far From the Madding Gerund and Other Dispatches from the Language Log, even had harsher words about Payack’s modus operandi after the Global Language Monitor announced that the 1-millionth word is “Web 2.0.” In a post on Language Blog on June 10, he accused Payack of botching his own story:

“Paul JJ Payack, after all the run-up, has botched the story of the millionth word. The most amusing thing was that he forgot to write a script that would stop updating his headline when the millionth word was hit and exceeded, so at 11:30 a.m. in the UK he had this headline at his Global Language Monitor website:

“The English Language WordClock: 1,000,001

“0 words until the 1,000,000th Word

“Oops! I think that should be minus one words, not zero words until the millionth!

“The other thing he screwed up on was the fixing of the choice of word. He let his script decide—not a good idea when the whole point of the exercise is promotion and P.R. I’m not sure how his script works, but what it finally picked as the millionth ‘word’ with at least 25,000 attestations on the web turned out to be: Web 2.0. Oops! First, that isn’t a word, it’s a phrase containing a noun (web) and a one of those stylish postpositive decimal numeric quantifiers; and second, it is boring boring boring. If phrases containing numbers are allowed, no wonder there are a million words. I was scheduled to go to the BBC Scotland studio and talk about this in a couple of hours, but when the people at the BBC World Service heard that the millionth word was Web 2.0, and that among the runners-up was the two-word Hindi exclamation jai hoo, they dumped the story and told me not to bother going over to the studio. Quite rightly. Payack should have hand-picked a more convincing word and likable word.

“In addition, he should tell us what his criterion is for including phrases on his list. Recent ‘words’ added include cloud computing, carbon neutral, slow food, shovel ready, zombie banks, overseas contingency operations, and (“word” no. 1,000,001) financial tsunami. How could anybody, however scanty their linguistic general knowledge, think all these were words rather than phrases?”

What about Payack’s book then? Is his A Million Words and Counting: How Global English Is Rewriting The World as exciting as he has made the arrival of “Web 2.0” to be?

It looks like it isn’t bad at all. Here’s what reader Cristina Salmastrelli said in her review of the book:

“This book was such a wonderful read. With every page, I learned something new about the English Language. I had no idea that all these ‘different’ cultures spread out over the globe are connected in such a basic way with the English language! This book [is] filled wonderful facts, insightful comments, fun tidbits, and hilarious ‘isms’…

“Also, there are little gray boxes throughout the book that have extra facts. Everyone must check out the ‘not of shred of truth’ gray box. I am a big history buff, so this information was right up my alley. You truly do learn such wonderful information in this book!”

But S. Karsten has a negative view about the book. In a review that he sent to, he said:

“I strongly recommend against buying this book. Paul Payack is not a linguist. His ‘Predictive Qualities Indicator,’ a proprietary algorithm that supposedly analyzes language in media, is nothing more than a common word count tool with a rip-off of the Flesch-Kincaid Readability test. Visit his web site for yourself (; he cites no sources (other than himself), provides no evidence for his claims and misuses linguistic terminology. The worst part: He likes to talk a lot about politicians and the passive voice. On the ‘’08 Election’ page of his web site, he gives the sentence ‘There will be setbacks’ as an example of passive voice. That is NOT passive voice; it’s an active-voice existential progressive construction. Payack fancies himself as ‘The Word Man,’ but he can't distinguish between passive and progressive voice.”

So what can we conclude from all this brouhaha about Payack’s 1-millionth English word and his book about its arrival?

Well, I think that no matter how shoddy and unscientific his word-counting methodology might have been, he and his spirit of enterprise have generated more interest and excitement in the English language than anyone in this generation has done, all linguists included. For that I think we should all doff our hats to him.

Well done, Paul—until the 2-millionth English word then!


  1. Three points:

    1. The Global Language Monitor has never sought the approval of these linguists who, from the beginning have maintained that since they cannot define what a word is, no one should ever attempt to count them. The Horror! The Horror!

    2. Scholars (the non-linguist variety) the world over regularly incorporate our research into peer-reviewed journal articles.

    3. The oft-stated purpose of the Million Word March was, and continues to be, the celebration of the coming of age of English as the first, true global language, with some 1.5 billion speakers.


  2. Well, Paul, linguists can be very demanding and rigorous in the application of morphology in determining whether a new word is truly a word or not, but that’s a perfectly valid exercise of their professional calling as linguists. (My 23-year-old son, a web programmer, also thinks that if “Web 2.0” is indeed a new word as determined by the Global Language Monitor, then “English 101,” “Math 101,” “Logic 101,” “Windows 98,” and the whole slew of numbered thingamajigs that followed them should also have been considered as new words, but were they? My son’s no linguist, of course, but he believes that as in the case of “Web 2.0,” your word-count should also have been applied to them—in which case English would be way beyond the 1-millionth word mark by now.)

    Anyway, Paul, what actually rankles with me in this whole word-formation and word-usage affair is when linguists want to dictate on how lay writers—even billion-dollar-blockbuster novelists like Dan Brown—should write. Would you believe that one of them actually called Dan Brown a “bad English stylist” for allegedly messing up the very first sentence of his The Da Vinci Code. And Dan Brown’s supposed linguistic crime, of all things, is that he uses the modifier “renowned” to describe a mortally wounded character in the opening sentence of the novel: “Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.” Using “renowned” in that context does sound a little iffy to me from a narrative standpoint , but I daresay that there’s nothing grammatically and semantically wrong with it—and the last I heard is that there’s still freedom of speech (and, of course, of writing) in the Free World. And, of course, who are we to dispute Dan Brown’s writing in the face of his astounding marketing success? This, to me, is why I think that some linguists—for all their methodical brilliance—can sometimes go so dangerously overboard in their criticism that they might in fact be stifling the very act of creative writing itself.