Thursday, January 11, 2007

The 2006 Word of the Year

The American Dialect Society has voted "plutoed" as its 2006 Word of the Year. According to the press release, "To pluto is to demote or devalue somone or something, as happened to the former planet Pluto when the General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union decided Pluto no longer met its definition of a planet."

I have a couple of objections to this choice. The first is semantic: The IAU did not "demote" Pluto. It created a formal definition of a planet to remove ambiguity, something that scientists love to do and that I believe most language enthusiasts encourage. The effect of that definition was to remove controversy over whether more recently-discovered bodies such as Eris should be classified as planets, and yes, to remove Pluto from that classification as well. But the proposal was not, as the definition of "pluto" implies, some sort of hostile act whose sole purpose was to strip Pluto of its status.

My second objection is that it is quite unconventional to define a verb in its active voice by the object of the verb's action. In other words, while "plutoed" as a past participle makes sense, "to pluto" as it was defined does not; it implies that Pluto did something, which it didn't. Usually, it's the agent of the action (in this case, the IAU) after which the new verb is named, and then both voices work: "The planet got IAUed", or "They IAUed Pluto". It's only because the passive voice in English has the compound form of to be + past participle that we sometimes define a verb first in the passive form, then extend it (inappropriately) to the active form. This sort of backwards coinage would be unlikely to happen in, say, Latin, where all voices share the same stem.

Finally, while the reclassification of Pluto may be an important event in scientific history, the linguistic significance of the term "plutoed" is debatable. I'd never even heard of it before it was voted 2006 Word of the Year; to me, some of the other nominations like "YouTube" or "macaca" were far more noteworthy. But then, I don't know what criteria were used by the 47 members of the society who voted for "plutoed".

1 comment:

Marve said...

Never heard "plutoed" before.

People made such a big deal out of this. I don't get it. We've only known about Pluto's existence for three generations and people act like a piece of their universe has cumbled into the abyss. Ceres used to be a planet too, once; we got over that just fine.