Words in English = 1 million

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Mon Mar 31 13:58:22 UTC 2008

On Mar 31, 2008, at 6:11 AM, Grant Barrett wrote:

> Payack is a hack with an appetite for inventing numbers and a knack
> for getting gullible press and public to swallow his rubbish as if it
> were dessert. He has zero credibility. His methods are imaginary, his
> results are only specious, and his conclusions baseless. He is no more
> in touch with what is truly happening in the English language than I
> am in touch with bug-eyed monsters from a planet circling Aldebaran.
> If anyone ever needed more evidence that the employment rolls of the
> popular press are riddled with dim sorts educated beyond their
> intelligence and empowered beyond their abilities, then that, perhaps,
> is the only useful thing that Payack has demonstrated by suckering
> them into reporting on his ridiculous claims.

from Geoff Nunberg:

With an apparent million entries in his (or his PR person's) Rolodex,
Paul J. J. Payack has once again managed to get media attention for
his loopy claim to have determined the exact size of the English
vocabulary, this in an article by Christine Lagorio at CBSnews.com.

The article does contain criticisms from language experts and
lexicographers like Jesse Sheidlower, whose more extensive debunking
of Payack's claims appeared a few days ago in Slate. (See also Ben
Zimmer's post of a couple of months ago). But the piece is written in
the "evenhanded" he-said-she-said style that journalists fall back on
when they're either too lazy or too timorous to check their facts
(Sheidlower is described as belonging to the "skeptics camp," for
example, as if there were any other). The effect is to leave the
reader with the impression that Payack is a participant in a
legitimate scientific controversy, rather than simply an opportunistic
charlatan. (As I put the point in a "Fresh Air" piece which I'll post
after it runs in a week or so, "trying to count the words of the
English language is as idiotic an exercise as trying to determine
exactly how many socks Americans lost in 2005.") When the media cover
stories about global warming or Intelligent Design that way, it's
accounted a sign of the brainless irresponsibility of modern
journalism; when the subject is language, nobody seems to care. Cue
the Bee Gees' "It's Only Words."

[AMZ note: this is from April 12, 2006 (on Language Log).  note the
"once again" in the first sentence.]

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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