Linguist, lexicographer, writer, editor, broadcaster

How very disingenuous of Steven Pinker

In a column for the Los Angeles Times, author and linguistic gadfly Steven Pinker writes,

Every year, the American Dialect Society predicts which new words will catch on. But a follow-up of their picks from the 1990s shows they are about as accurate as tabloid psychics. Some of the words were political barbs that died with the careers of their targets (the verb to gingrich). Others were bets on the wrong name for an innovation, like W3 (that’s what they thought we’d call the World Wide Web), information superhighway (waytoo Al Gore) and Infobahn (yuck).

Problem is, he’s wrong. I’d expect better of him than this kind of willful misunderstanding.

I write this as a vice president of the American Dialect Society: only the “most likely to succeed category” is our vote for, well, words we think are likely to succeed. Not even crowning a word as “word of the year” means the society thinks it is sure to last. And, in any case, as we state plainly at the time of every vote and to every reporter who asks, the vote is one of whimsy, not one of an august body making pronouncements.

The American Dialect Society in fact, chose “World Wide Web and its variants” as most likely to succeed in 1995, not merely “W3”.

In 1993, ADS chose “information superhighway” as Word of the Year, but “quotative” as the most likely to suceed (which it has).

To gingrich was chosen as the most useful for 1994 and no word was chosen as the most likely succeed, as the category was not voted on that year. However, “Infobahn” was chosen as most promising, which is similar.

So plus one point for Steven Pinker and minus three. That’s a failing grade for badly interpreting plainly labeled evidence.

author avatar
Grant Barrett