purpose of WOTY contests

RonButters at AOL.COM RonButters at AOL.COM
Fri Sep 1 15:23:39 UTC 2006

Michael Adams has put the case well, it seems to me, in defense of ADS's WOTY 
contests: ADS members are entertaining themselves and in the process 
entertaining the public and demonstrating to them that language study is an amusement, 
which (as Michael suggests) may well be all that they remember after the 
publicity has died down. I guess I agree that it is nice to have the world think 
that what we do is fun, and that we are a cheerful bunch of folks, which of 
course it is and we are. My sense is, however, that we tend to give the 
impression that WOTY is not entirely whimsy, and the press tends to take it much more 
seriously than that: in their minds, we ARE some prescriptivist authority who 
are making scholarly pronouncements—albeit with a good deal of jolly banter in 
the process—muddle-headed academics with nothing better to do with our time 
(sorta like demoting Pluto to a "dwarf planet," which, perhaps, should be the 
WOTY 2006, though why they didn't call it a "planetette" I will never 

I don't agree that, if the public has only this sort of impression of ADS, 
"whether they can remember exactly what we do is less important, because they 
can look it up." I don't see how this "furthers scholarly purposes" at all, and 
Adams doesn't even begin to say. And I can't imagine many people will "look it 
up"! Why would they bother when they think they know, from our public 
presentation, EXACTLY what we are? Adams is creating a straw man in suggesting that I 
am concerned with a "false dichotomy" between "serious" and "publicity 
stunt." I am interested in placing WOTY on the cline between the one pole and the 
other, and so far nobody has suggested that WOTY belongs anywhere near the 
"serious" end. Dave declares that WOTY "perhaps promote[s] some sound linguistic 
principles in the process" of "having fun," but he doesn't tell us what they 

WOTY has certainly become a tradition, and it is obvious that many ADS 
members find it amusing. I can't think of any other scholarly organization that does 
anything like this, which of course is not in itself an argument against our 
doing what seems to come natural to many of us. Nor is it at all clear what 
the WOTY criteria really are, beyond some vague sense of capturing the 
"zeitgeist." (There does not seem to be much in common in the list of WOTY that has 
been put together over the years, except a kind of arch attempt at cleverness.) 

If the majority of ADS-ers are happy with this--or at least don't much care 
one way or another, I'm cool with that. I certainly don't mean ot imply that 
the annual Contest is going to ruin ADS, however silly I think it makes us look. 
As my daddy used to say, it's a free country, live and let live, and if y'all 
want to dance in the canoe, I'll take a pass on that particular part of the 

In a message dated 8/31/06 3:18:37 PM, dave at WILTON.NET writes:

> Exactly. If we attempt to maintain that WOTY is anything but whimsy, then
> the ADS is supporting the idea that it is some prescriptivist authority and
> that such pronouncements serve a real scholarly purpose. The point is to
> have a bit of fun and perhaps promote some sound linguistic principles in
> the process.
> By no means should we infer that a word's validity resides in an online
> database. It's just that Google, or another database, can give us a rough,
> first-order approximation of a term's popularity. The reason for consulting
> a variety of databases is that they cover a variety of different users.
> LexisNexis gives data on publications; Technorati covers blogs; Google
> Groups shows the more casual patterns of Usenet, etc. (LexisNexis is
> probably not the first place to look for slang usages.)
> By excluding "Colbert" from searches of "truthiness" I was attempting to
> roughly determine how strongly the word was linked with that
> show--diversity, the "D" in Metcalf's FUDGE. (Pretty strong link, but by no
> means exclusive.) It's not that such contexts are any less legitimate than
> others.
> And for the record, I voted for "Katrina," but I think "truthiness" is a
> fine choice.
> --Dave Wilton
>   dave at wilton.net
> -----Original Message-----
> From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf Of
> Michael Adams
> Sent: Wednesday, August 30, 2006 8:45 AM
> Subject: Re: purpose of WOTY contests
> I think of WOTY as an entertainment, one that we share with the public. And
> I think that publicity is useful in achieving the serious purposes Ron
> mentions: it won't hurt the American Dialect Society if lots of people have
> heard that there IS one; whether they can remember exactly what we do is
> less important, because they can look it up.
> Is "serious vs. publicity stunt" perhaps a false dichotomy? And while we
> have seen no uptick in membership as a result of publicity (OK by me), and
> while we did see a slight downturn in membership about the time WOTY came to
> be, it shouldn't be assumed that there's any connection among any of these
> phenomena.
> I have found the discussion of what Google tells us about the early history
> of words very interesting -- I'm really grateful for it and would like to
> thank those who have contributed to it. But I resist the assumption that a
> word's success (especially the "validity" of any WOTY) depends on how many
> times the word is registered in an on-line database. First, I have yet to
> see that such dbs are representative of all speech. Second, longevity isn't
> the ONLY measure of a word's success. Third, separation from phenomena that
> stimulate actuation is not necessarily a virtue (in other words, why exclude
> Colbert-related use of "truthiness"?) -- "Katrina" was a reasonable
> alternative to "truthiness," but when people stop talking about the
> hurricane in particular, use of the name for a hurricane will drop of
> sharply. "Katrina" might still be "the WOTY," though, as a word's
> significance in the zeitgeist might have to do neither with frequency of use
> nor with longevity of use -- it might!
>   be discovered, in an act of interpretation, long after the fact of its
> use.
> How does "truthiness" measure on Metcalf's FUDGE scale? I haven't worked it
> all out, but, eyeballing the evidence, I guess that, at the present time, it
> looks more successful than many words (new or reactuated) and less
> successful than others.
> Anyway, I think that it was a pretty good choice from among other good
> nominations. I don't think that we should seek publicity; I don't thnk that
> we should shun it. And, like Steve and Ron, I am all for a little whimsy in
> a conference program (appropriately) filled with seriousness.
> -----Original Message-----
> From: RonButters at AOL.COM
> Sent: Wed, 30 Aug 2006 9:36 AM
> Subject: purpose of WOTY contests
> In a message dated 8/28/06 11:59:42 AM, stevekl at PANIX.COM writes:
> > Truthiness is extremely mediagenic and garnered more publicity for the ADS
> > and the WoTY than I'd ever seen. (Do we know if this resulted in an uptick
> > in memberships, by the way?)
> >
> > I'm a big proponent of whimsy by the way. I don't think there's anything
> > in the by-laws that slaps down whimsy.
> >
> I suspect--given the history of membership over the past 10 years--that
> there
> has been no uptick. Indeed, if anything, the size of the organization has
> tended to shrink since the New Words contests became a media publicity
> stunt.
> But
> would we really want new members who joined simply because they wanted to be
> a part of an organization devoted to "whimsy"?
> If the New Words Events are just publicity stunts, then I suppose that the
> selection of TRUTHINESS can be defended in the way that Steve describes. But
> I
> keep asking myself, "Why does the American Dialect Society, a scholarly
> organization, need this kind of publicity?" It seems to me that we are
> sending
> mixed
> messages: we have some serious things to say about language in America, but
> we
> present ourselves to the public is as a source of arch publicity stunts and
> purveyors of "whimsy," and that is what they remember. Do we really have a
> purpose here consonant with our charge, or is this something that mostly
> just
> amuses us for a couple of hours at a "scholarly" convention and gratifies
> our
> egos
> in that it gets us on TV and in the papers?
> Someone commented here that TRUTHINESS did seem to capture the spirit of the
> times or something like that. If that is our goal, we need to enunciate it a
> little more clearly, and make sure we are not merely reflecting the
> political
> views of the majority of those who sit on the floor at the annual meeting
> (i.e., that conservatives lie to us when they are in power, the mirror image
> of
> the
> view that a lot of other people have, i.e., that liberals lie to us when
> they
> are in power). One guy's spirit of the times is another guy's political
> propaganda.
> All of the evidence that I have seen here from Googlish searches indicates
> that TRUTHINESS was a stunt word of very little linguistic significance
> until
> ADS made minor linguistic history by creating enough interest in the word to
> make it a minor buzz word--one that, as I see it, will go the way of
> But I will stay tuned. It will in itself be an interesting sociolinguistic
> phenomenon if it turns out that the "whimsical" publicity stunt of an
> academic
> lingjuistic organization turns out to have actually AFFECTED the history of
> the
> lexicon.
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