Episode 349: December 28, 2012
by Mignon Fogarty
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I usually hate end-of-year reviews, but as I was looking back over the stories that caught my attention in 2012, much to my surprise, I truly thought they were worth reviewing.
The Final Volume of the Dictionary of American Regional English Was Published
The first big story that jumped out at me in 2012 was when Harvard University Press published the final volume of the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) in March. It’s a huge accomplishment. A series of authors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have been working on that dictionary for almost 50 years, and in March, they released the fifth volume, which contains entries from “slab” to “zydeco,” a kind of Creole dance music.
If you love the maps I make showing where people say things like their car “needs washed” or that an upscale restaurant is “spendy,” you’ll love this dictionary. It’s been used by actors to prepare for roles and by authorities to profile criminals based on their writing. If you’re a fiction writer, you might find it especially useful for finding words and phrases that give your characters an authentic regional feel.
The dictionary itself is pretty spendy, so you might want to check it out at your local library.
The final volume of DARE was also just named to Smithsonian Magazine’s list of the Top Books of 2012.
A New Gender-Neutral Pronoun Got Some Traction in Sweden
The next big story happened in April, when Sweden’s National Encyclopedia was updated to include a new gender-neutral pronoun: “hen,” (pronounced like we’d pronounce the bird’s name in English). A children’s book with the translated title “Kivi and the Monsterdog” was also published using the “hen” pronoun.
Swedish has the pronouns “han” for “he” and “hon” for “she.” They struggle with the same thing we do when we don’t know whether someone is a male or a female. People in English are tempted to use “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun, and now some people in Sweden have taken a deliberate step to solve the problem in their language by introducing a new word. It’s a tough thing to accomplish, but it’s interesting that they’re trying.
The AP Stylebook Changed Its Stance on “Hopefully”
Also in April, the AP Stylebook changed its stance on "hopefully." I wrote about it back then, but I’ll cover it here briefly because it’s a big deal.
For centuries, “hopefully” has meant “in a hopeful manner.” For example, I could describe Squiggly as looking hopefully at the package Aardvark was carrying under his arm. Squiggly was hopeful that it contained chocolate.
But people have been using “hopefully” for quite some time to also mean they are hopeful of something or hopeful that something will happen, as in “Hopefully, you realize that language changes over time,” and “Hopefully, we’ll get some snow this week.”
In April, the Associated Press acknowledged this more recent and common use and said it will now be OK for people following AP style to use “hopefully” in both ways.
Authorities Caught a Cheater in a Big Scrabble Tournament
In August, there was a sad story for people who love Scrabble because a child was caught cheating by palming tiles at the National Scrabble Championship. Stefan Fatsis has a great story about it in Slate, and I especially appreciated that he didn’t name the child, who deserves to be able to move on from the incident. To me, the most fascinating part was his description of the ways people used to game the game in real life. For example, a long time ago, the tiles were laid out face down on the box instead of being held in a bag, so according to Lester Schonbrun, who Fatsis quoted, regulars could spot the blanks, which were lighter than the other tiles “because they spent half their time on one face or the other.”
A Myth Was Unleashed on the Public
The story that made me the saddest in 2012 started in June when Dennis Baron, a professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois, wrote a post describing a fake condition he called Grammar Pedantry Syndrome. Unfortunately, many people didn’t get the subtle joke and thought it was true.
I did a podcast about it in August, and I’m only including it here because the story got worse. At least 10 different, highly followed Twitter accounts that tweet “facts” (and I put that in quotation marks), tweeted just the take-away: “Grammar Pedantry Syndrome is a form of OCD in which sufferers need to correct every grammatical error.” Period. Without any link to the original joke article. So even if people had originally had a chance of penetrating the academic humor and seeing that this was a hoax, now it’s out there as a fact in the minds of a lot of people. The accounts that tweeted the line had more than four million followers alone, and most of those tweets were retweeted hundreds of times by other accounts.
If you heard about this fake syndrome, don’t believe it; and if someone tells you about it, tell them it was a joke.
Two Mass Nouns Faced Off in the NBA
In more fun news in June, the sports site Deadspin pointed out that when the Thunder played the Heat, it created a rare intersection of grammar and sports because it was the first time a major championship featured two teams whose names are both mass nouns.
An Embargo Break on the Oxford Word of the Year Caused Confusion
We had some language excitement in November, when Oxford Dictionaries chose “GIF” as the US word of the year. They meant “GIF” as a verb, meaning creating an animated GIF like the kind you often see on Tumblr. Their example sentence was “He GIFed the highlights of the debate.”
However, The Star broke the embargo and published the story early without complete information. (The story was later updated.) They didn’t mention the part about it being “GIF” as a verb and since GIF has been used as a noun for more than 20 years, it had some people (like me) scratching their heads wondering whether the editors has taken a DeLorean ride back in time.
Note that the word can be properly pronounced as either “gif” or “jif.”
I spent a number of years as a science writer, where embargo breaks were a big deal because they often had financial implications. I never thought I’d encounter an embargo break that mattered in the language field.
[Here’s a delightful GIFed story about how they chose “GIF.”]
San Mateo City Attorney Argues That “Or” Can Mean “And”
Finally, I’m always intrigued by court cases that hinge on grammar or the specific meaning of a word. Well, just a couple of weeks ago, Iris Gray shared a story with me from the San Mateo County Times about the city attorney arguing that “or” can mean “and” in his interpretation of the city code, which makes the difference in whether a 7-11 store will be allowed to operate in a spot that’s zoned residential.
The sentence in question talks about what can happen after a nonconforming use (a business in a residential zone) has been “discontinued or abandoned.” It seems pretty obvious to me that the “or” would mean that either one of those things could trigger the loss of the zoning exception, but two representatives of the city are asserting that “or” can mean “and,” and that the exception stays in place unless the previous business has been both discontinued and abandoned. It seems as if the city wants that 7-11 there.
Sadly, in the article, it seemed that all parties thought that common sense would not prevail and this case was heading to court. My favorite quotation in the article was from a mother at the city council meeting who said, “If I tell my son, 'Would you like an apple or an orange?' he understands he doesn't get both."
And those, in my opinion, were the most interesting language news stories of 2012. I posted all of these stories to my Facebook page, so if want to get the news as it happens, follow me at Facebook.com/GrammarGirl.