How the Web Is Changing Language The online world of linguistics is fast, funny, and bears no resemblance to hours spent in a classroom prying adjectives and nouns from a sentence. Linguists and wordsmiths talk about new words, new blogs and new usage.
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How the Web Is Changing Language

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How the Web Is Changing Language

How the Web Is Changing Language

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Linguists used to simply be called nerds. Now, they're moving proudly into the geek category as part of the techno-scente. The growth of language blogs, fringe dictionaries, and, of course, grumpy comments from would-be grammarians and lexicologists on all manner of sites have brought our definitions, phrases, symbols, and usage into the digital age with speed and even joy.

The online world of linguistics is fast, funny, and bears little resemblance to the hours you may have spent in a classroom diagramming sentences. In fact, it's a lot closer to dodge ball. This hour, we'll discuss the online conversation about language, new words, new blogs, and new terms with linguists, with wordsmiths, and with you.

Later in the hour, to the Galapagos for the famous encounter between Charles Darwin and the pirate captain, and then to Las Vegas for a preview of the much-anticipated Beatles show from Cirque du Soleil, Love.

But first, the language of netspeak. Let us know how you feel about the online dictionaries and blogs. Do you own a paper dictionary? Has the Internet turned you into an online logophiliac? Do you use the cyber as a prefix for - well, for everything? Join the conversation. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. E-mail us,

Grant Barrett is the editor of the brand-new Official Dictionary of Unofficial English, as well as the editor of - and I'm gonna have to say this carefully -the Double-Tongued Word Wrester Web site where which you may actually need a double tongue. And he trolls the fringes of English usage, and he's with us from our bureau in New York. Welcome back to the program.

Mr. GRANT BARRETT (Editor, The Official Dictionary of Unofficial English): Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: You've been part of this online lexical world for a while. What's appealing to it, as a language-lover?

Mr. BARRETT: As a language-lover, the best thing about it is that you get as close as you can get to eavesdropping on thousands of conversations. There's information and data there that I might not otherwise be able to find.

CONAN: So you're getting a change to eavesdrop on the way people really write and speak.

Mr. BARRETT: They write almost as closely - almost word-for-word the way they speak. Instead of it being formal text, edited text, professional text, we're getting people in web logs, discussion forums, a variety of places, writing very casually. The rules kind of go by the wayside, which means they're more likely to introduce things that are brand-new or heretofore unrecognized, new characteristics about language that then can be recorded and studied.

CONAN: Give us an example.

Mr. BARRETT: Well, my specialty is a lexicographer. I spend my days as a professional lexicographer working on the Historical Dictionary of American Slang. It's important to me to find new slang. In order to do that, I need to be reading the kinds of - I need to be reading these underbelly documents...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARRETT: ...the sub-language. I need to be paying attention to, you know, some of the earthy stuff that people have to say about life and about other people. So I spend a great deal of time looking for new slang on the Internet. And some of the stuff really has yet to show up in print, and if it has shown up in print, it's only showed up in print in dictionaries like the ones that I create. So there's this whole universe of language that exists without being recorded, and I'm digging into that. I'm looking into it.

CONAN: Your giant predecessor, HL Mencken, of course, spent time in all sorts of places looking for new language, in coffee shops wondering about the etymology of Adam and Eve on a raft, for example. So this is the modern equivalent of being able to do that.

Mr. BARRETT: It is. Mencken was quite a magpie. He had an immense collection -he had this ability to collect information from a variety of sources and to integrate it and synthesize it to come up with, kind of - say, he could say Americans do this with language. Americans speak this way. His three-volume work - it was originally one volume with two supplements, was called the American Language - is still very important, and most of the people I know still consider it a work worth referencing. And it was published, I think, last in 1948.

CONAN: And nice to know that people still value paper. That's another development. People hardly use their dictionaries anymore; they can Google anything.

Mr. BARRETT: Well, you know, I get people telling me that all the time, but what I find is when they Goggle it, they often come up frustrated. And then they go to a site like OneLook or or, and they use what amounts to a traditional dictionary in digital form.

CONAN: Hmm. 800-989-8255, if you'd like to join us, 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is We're discussing how the World Wide Web has affected our worldwide language, our words, our usage, our grammar. Please give us a call and participate in the conversation. This is Melissa(ph). Melissa calling us from Reno in Nevada.

MELISSA (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Melissa. Go ahead, please.

MELISSA: I'm - my husband and I live in a split home. I'm an old crossword doer. I love my paper. I've got five dictionaries. If I'm doing my crossword or just reading something, I go to my dictionary. My husband is - does, yes, he's a cyber nut. The only thing he uses for pencil and paper is a note to tell him what to do online.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And I guess we have the American dichotomy right there, Grant Barrett.

Mr. BARRETT: We do indeed. Melissa's not unusual to have it in one household. However, Melissa, do you have children?


Mr. BARRETT: Many households that have children, usually find that the split is between the parents and the children, where the children go first to the Internet for their answers and the parents go first to the bookshelf, where the family dictionary sits.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Melissa, it's - I know you have a preference for your dictionaries for paper, but is - have you tried looking up words on the Internet?

MELISSA: Oh, yeah. I do that occasionally, and I usually go to Merriam-Webster site, and I occasionally look up - I'll look up a reference that maybe is not in one of my dictionaries, but - and I, I mean, the laptop's sitting there all the time. I do use it, but my first inclination is to open a book.

CONAN: Hmm. All right...

MELISSA: And my husband's first inclination is to only open a book if you're reading it. Not to (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: He's opening up his PowerBook. That's right, yes.


CONAN: OK. Melissa, thanks very much for the call.

MELISSA: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye, and happy solving.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MELISSA: Thank you. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And let's see if we can get another voice into the conversation here. And joining us now is Geoff Pullum. He's a professor of linguistics and a distinguished professor of humanities at the University of California Santa Cruz, who spent the last year at Harvard University's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. He's best known on the Web as co-creator of the Language Log, and his new book with Mark Liberman, Far from the Madding Gerund, is a compilation of some of their posts. He joins us from the studios of member station WBUR in Boston. It's nice to have you on the program today as well.

Professor GEOFFREY PULLUM (Professor of Linguistics, the University of California Santa Cruz): Hi, Neal. Nice to be here.

CONAN: Tell us a little bit about how Language Log got started.

Prof. PULLUM: It was an idea to bring linguistics to a wider public. This is a little-known subject. There's plenty of people who don't know there is such a thing as linguistics. You tell them, in fact, that linguistics is what you do, and they say, what are they...


Prof. PULLUM: ...or something, you know? It's just not like geology where everyone knows in universities there are geologists and they're the go-to guys for rocks. The fact that there are linguistics departments where there are go-to guys for language is, well, a rather closely guarded secret, and we didn't want to guard it any longer, so.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: So you've exposed, you've toppled the - opened up the anthill to examination. Now, much of the language on the site isn't necessarily new, but it may have become more popular because of your growing readership. But some of it, well, tell us about what a snowclone is?

Prof. PULLUM: Oh, a snowclone is a sort of a pre-packed phrase with some replaceable parts for lazy journalists to just - little bit of assembly required but, basically, it's almost written for you.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. PULLUM: You have an article to write about Neal Conan and being on the radio...

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Prof. PULLUM: ...and so you say something like, well, linguists tell us that the Eskimos have dozens and dozens of words for snow, well, Neal Conan has dozens of different words for microphone. All of this is nonsense, of course, you see, but it's a cliché to begin an article with. And we just noticed that the one about Eskimos and snow was very, very common, so we called them snowclones.

And we collected just hundreds of them. There are these sort of phrases with little bits you can replace that journalists just lean on. I mean, things like X is the new Y.

CONAN: Yes, right.

Prof. PULLUM: You're choice of X, your choice of Y.

CONAN: Thirty's the new 20.

Prof. PULLUM: These are just modern clichés with replaceable bits, that's all.

CONAN: What about eggcorn?

Prof. PULLUM: Oh, eggcorn's a special kind of hearing error, not a speech error, that we noticed quite early on in 2003, when Language Log was starting.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. PULLUM: We collected hundreds of them since. They're just very interesting. When people haven't quite heard a word or they have heard it perfectly, but they've got a theory about what its origin would be and what its parts are, they sometimes reveal, when they write a word down, that although they use it correctly and they pronounce it correctly, they know the meaning, they've actually got a wrong theory about it. We noticed it first in the case of the people who say eggcorn, meaning acorn.

CONAN: Acorn, I see what you mean. This is...

Prof. PULLUM: For a lot of people, egg sounds more like ayg. Before guh, the eh is more like ay. So eggcorn, it's almost undetectable. And the ones who write it down write it down as eggcorn are revealing that they had a theory about this word acorn. They know perfectly well they are little, eggshaped things...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. PULLUM: ...that drop from oak trees...

CONAN: Absolutely, yeah.

Prof. PULLUM: ...but they had to have a theory they were called that because they're egg shaped, which is cute.

CONAN: It is, yeah.

Prof. PULLUM: It's kind of like not an indication of people's ignorance of language, but an indication of their intelligence, their cleverness. They've not only got these words, they've got theories about them. Some of those theories are wrong.

CONAN: And is this related to the nucular crisis?

Prof. PULLUM: There isn't any nucular crisis. There'd be a nuclear crisis if we started using those weapons, but nucular is just a fairly common, regional version of the pronunciation of that word. The fact that our president probably uses it doesn't distinguish him from most of the military. They kind of like it.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Or from a previous president too, Jimmy Carter.

Prof. PULLUM: You know, it's a funny thing that nobody worries that some people say economic and some people say economic. That just doesn't get people going.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. PULLUM: And yet, nucular and nuclear does. And then again, February and Febuary, that doesn't really upset people. I cannot predict what's going to upset people, but I know some stuff does and other things don't.

CONAN: All right, Grant Barrett, I do have to ask, is snowclone or eggcorn -have either of those made it onto your dictionary yet?

Mr. BARRETT: Onto the site - Double-Tongued, for short - no, they haven't made it yet, but I think that both terms serve as perfect examples of what successful neologisms are...

CONAN: How...

Mr. BARRETT: ...which means they are shorthand for a much longer idea, they are memorable, and they have utility, so that we can instantly put these to work if we are discussing language. So I think both of those words have a high chance of being included in most of the mainstream, you know, large dictionaries within 10 years or so.

CONAN: Within 10 years...

Mr. BARRETT: And it's...

CONAN: Geoffrey?

Prof. PULLUM: It's very interesting that some words that are coined never do catch on. You can sort of spot them and see that they're not going to. I remember a word called glempfy(ph), which somebody created to mean something or other...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. PULLUM: ...and we wrote at the time, on Language Log, here's one that's never going to catch on, trust us. We were right. It's never been heard of again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARRETT: And most words don't, most words don't catch on. Millions are coined each year and very few make it.

Prof. PULLUM: Yeah, it's true democracy here. You know, you really have to go with the people. They'll decide which words catch on.

CONAN: Dictionary Darwinism. We're talking about words in the online conversation about language. And we'll take your calls, more of them, when we come back: 800-989-8255. E-mail us,

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're talking about the English language in the digital age with experts, linguists and wordsmiths who help define all of this net speak, our guests are Grant Barrett, editor of the Official Dictionary of Unofficial Language, and Geoffrey Pullum, the co-author of the Language Log blog.

And, of course, you're invited to join us: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is And let's get Russ(ph) on the line. Russ is calling us from Thiensville - is that right? - in Wisconsin?

RUSS (Caller): Yes, it is...

CONAN: Okay, go ahead.

RUSS: Yeah, I've been hosting a Brazilian exchange student and she's a senior in high school. That doesn't seem uncommon, but what's interesting is is she spends a lot of time online chatting with her friends. But when she's talking with her friends, she uses the same short forms. For instance, instead of saying oh my God, she'll say OMG.

CONAN: Really?

RUSS: Yes.

CONAN: So she'll say LOL as a...

RUSS: Yeah, well, actually, no, she'll actually laugh out loud. I thought about that...

(Soundbite of laughter)

RUSS: ...but she actually uses the same short forms she uses in her text messaging in her own language.

CONAN: I wonder - a lot of us have the annoying habit of using those two fingers as apostrophes - the four fingers, one - two on each side. Does she do a - you know, a colon and a parenths to indicate she's smiling.

RUSS: No, she doesn't.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RUSS: But she does - she says - especially when she's talking to her friends in Portuguese, they use shortened forms of Portuguese words when they're talking. And when I hear her talking to her friends on the phone back in Brazil, you can tell the difference between when she's talking to her parents, when she's using the full Portuguese word, whereas when she's using the shortened forms when she's talking to her friends. It's like they're compressing the language, even in everyday conversation, not just online, to save time.

CONAN: Grant Barrett, is this a phenomenon you've noticed?

Mr. BARRETT: Absolutely. I have a lot of anecdotal evidence that supports this. The L-O-L phenomenon - actually, when it's spoken, it's usually used sarcastically. Somebody will say, LOL. That's how they pronounce it. LOL...

(Soundbite of laughter)


Mr. BARRETT: And it just means, that's not really funny. I know you meant it was supposed to be funny, but it's not funny. But I'm going to throw this sarcastic LOL at you instead.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARRETT: O-M-G, I haven't heard and I have no reports of that. For the most part, what you find people doing is things like B-R-B, be right back. It's...

Prof. PULLUM: It's worth noting...

CONAN: Go ahead.

Prof. PULLUM: Could I comment on this?

CONAN: Go ahead, Geoffrey, yeah.

Prof. PULLUM: It's word noting that - they say familiarity breeds contempt, but familiarity certainly breeds abbreviation in both spoken and written language. So it isn't very surprising that somebody chatting very informally with friends will use shortened forms of words. That's the conventional part of almost every spoken language.

Mr. BARRETT: And the Brazilian...

Prof. PULLUM: The (unintelligible) forms words.

Mr. BARRETT: And the Brazilians have taken to the Internet like Americans have. The younger set is as closely intertwined with the digital realm as all of the young people I know here in the United States. Some Web sites that started out as American Web sites, such as Orkut, O-R-K-U-T, are now predominantly Brazilian. That's how - I mean, it's an enormous country with a large population, so I'm not surprised that these shorthands are migrating from the very active, online Brazilian environment to the external, spoken Brazilian environment.

Prof. PULLUM: I bet they don't migrate very much, though. I bet very little of what anybody says actually comes from Internet abbreviations. And the occasional emergence of something like O-M-G might be sort of noticeable, but it's really just the same phenomenon as Col. Potter in MASH on the TV who used to refer to World War II as WWWII. I remember thinking...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. PULLUM: The abbreviation is a lot longer than the real thing, but whatever.

CONAN: Okay.

Prof. PULLUM: You're right, Geoff. And the true test will be whether or not these terms enter the oral realm, stay, and then return to print in a different form.

Prof. PULLUM: Yeah, right.

CONAN: Well, Russ, thanks very much for keeping your linguistic antennae up.

RUSS: Well, thank you for your time, gentlemen. I appreciate it.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go to - this is David(ph). David's calling us from Oklahoma City.

DAVID: Hello.

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air.

DAVID: All right, thank you. First of all, I'd like to just point out that this - I'm really enjoying the show and it reminds me of when you read older text, 1850s and before, a lot of times the spellings of the same words will be different. And I kind of see this as like a before there was an Oxford English Dictionary.

CONAN: So, Grant Barrett, is that something you would agree with?

Mr. BARRETT: Oh, certainly. I think that there is plenty of variation now, but we all agree that there's supposed to be a right answer. Of course, English is not a monolithic language. We do have divisions by, of course, across the pond. Geoff could probably speak more fully to that. We have divisions that have to do with preference, journalese, for example. The kind of things that The New York Post and the Daily News can put in their headlines, the kind of things they actually wouldn't put in the body of their articles.

So we have different spelling for different reasons anyway. I don't know that the OED was responsible for regularizing language. I think most people would say that Samuel Johnson's Dictionary probably was the first real mark to make that happen, the first real effort where we kind of started realizing, hey, it would be kind of cool...

Prof. PULLUM: Yes.

Mr. BARRETT: ...if we all did this the same.

Prof. PULLUM: In the 1600s, spelling varied very widely. Educated people in different counties would just spell differently and people were making it up as they went along. But it was really largely settled by about sometime in the 1800s. And spelling varies very, very little now. There is the standardized American versus British spelling of English. Otherwise, it's pretty well codified and fixed for everything.

Spoken language varies much more. Grammar varies more than spelling does and I would say grammar has dialect variations, so don't be too quick to assume something bad about someone's intelligence because their grammar isn't quite like yours. But when it comes to spelling, hey, there are rules, follow them, you know?

Mr. BARRETT: But I would...

Prof. PULLUM: You can certainly...

Mr. BARRETT: You know, F. Scott Fitzgerald was a horrible speller, but a great novelist. So there's - that's my rule as well.

CONAN: If he'd had spell check, everybody would have been happy with him. David, thanks very much for the call.

DAVID: Thank you.

CONAN: Martha Barnette is a journalist who writes about language. She's the author of three books on word origins and she co-hosts a popular radio show, A Way With Words, on member station KPBS in San Diego, along with grammar maven Richard Lederer. And she joins us now today from member station WFPL in Louisville. Nice to have you on the program.

Ms. MARTHA BARNETTE (Author; Co-Host, A Way With Words): Nice to be here, Neal.

CONAN: Grammarians and linguists are often somewhat at odds. I want to point out that you're more of a word sleuth. What kind of questions do you get from your listeners?

Ms. BARNETTE: We get all kinds of questions, Neal. And I've just been so struck in the past two years that I've been hosting the show, people are so passionate when they call us. They're so passionate about language. And they use expressions like, you know, this pronunciation makes my skin crawl or this usage makes my teeth hurt or this feels like nails on a chalkboard. They call about all kinds of things, like their pet peeves, impact, that word...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. BARNETTE: ...sets a lot of people off, in the same way that nucular does.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BARNETTE: People get upset about verbs becoming - nouns becoming verbs like podiumed was a big one a while back. But we try to set them straight about that, because 20 percent or so of those words started out as nouns.

CONAN: We're focusing today on words and the Web. And I wonder, are your listeners curious about what's going on online?

Ms. BARNETTE: Absolutely, they are. I find more and more that they've done a little bit of homework before they call us with questions.

CONAN: Uh-huh.

Ms. BARNETTE: They've at least Googled, and they're starting to find their way around. For example, more and more of our listeners are starting to use the Oxford English Dictionary online, which is really exciting, because it used to be something that you had to pay hundreds and hundreds of dollars to have access to. But now, you can get access to it through public libraries, which is very exciting because you can do all kinds of wonderful reverse searches and that kind of thing on the OED.

For example, if you know that there's a word for a battle between frogs and mice, but you can't remember that word is, you can just plug in the words frogs and mice in battle and it'll spit out batrachomyomachy, which, as everybody knows...

CONAN: It was on the tip of my tongue.

Ms. BARNETTE: a...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BARNETTE: Yeah, so they're finding things like that and Grant's site is a wonderful resource. OneLook, as he said. gives you a look at a lot of different dictionaries. And that also gives you a chance to see how lexicographers sometimes differ on pronunciations or definitions.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. BARNETTE: And etymologies.

CONAN: And the other thing the Internet does is effectively open the doorway to expertise. And I wonder, do you find your audience changing as a result of those doors being opened?

Ms. BARNETTE: In what way?

CONAN: Well, in other words, because they have access to so many experts on the Web, they become more educated.

Ms. BARNETTE: I think that's true. I think it's also kind of overwhelming, you know, because you just have this big wave of information coming at you and probably everybody has seen that awful e-mail that goes around about life in the 1500s and all these bogus etymologies. So you really need people to guide you through that, or you need to find which sources are reliable on that.

But, yeah, it's changing everything. I mean, now that our show is Podcasting, we're getting calls from China and Taiwan and India and Spain and all these places where people are learning English as a second language and really valuing it in a way that's very striking.

CONAN: Grant Barrett, Podcast, a word that well few of us knew two years ago, I assume that's in your dictionary.

Mr. BARRETT: It is not, but the New Oxford American Dictionary, which I have a small hand in creating, did call it our word of the year last year. I have to admit, though, when Podcast was first coined and the concept was first talked about, I said this is D.O.A. This is never going to last. And I was wrong.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Mitch. Mitch calling us from Portland, Oregon.

MITCH (CALLER): Hi there. Many people I know who use the dictionary online use And I just wanted to champion that website that was mentioned earlier,, which searches nearly a thousand dictionaries. It's great for like newer or more obscure words or more specialized words. I've been frustrated though in trying to find a better thesaurus online then And I was wondering if anybody has a favorite?

CONAN: Geoffrey Pullum?

Prof. PULLUM: No, I - same thing. I don't think anybody's really started a brand new thesaurus from scratch since Roget. We're all just plagiarizing Roget or actually using Roget's. Dictionaries have been revolutionized compared to thesauruses.

Ms. BARNETTE: Right. The only other thing I could suggest is, again, with the O.E.D., for example, you can do reverse searches and kind of find your way to words like that.

Mr. BARRETT: What's not working for you in the online thesauruses?

MITCH: Well, you know, I've seen a really great thesaurus online that's a pay service that I haven't really been able to use too much because of that. It's a visual thesaurus and it actually shows like a visual map of words. And you click on one and spokes jet out from the word that show other words…

Mr. BARRETT: I've seen it. It's beautiful. It's wonderfully done.

Ms. BARNETTE: Right. Right.

Mr. BARRETT: It's a gorgeous piece of art, much less a gorgeous piece of lexicography.

Prof. PULLUM: Yes, and when that's fully developed that will be the first really new development. I think it's still in development right now, but that will be a really new resource.

MITCH: There's also an interesting, but very undeveloped tool from Google. It's still in their labs right now and it's in Beta. But it's called Google sets. And you can put in like two related words and it'll find a whole bunch of words that appear next to those words. And you find a lot of interesting connections between words that way.

CONAN: Interesting. So, if you put in frog and mice you might have found that word that everybody knew that Martha was referring to earlier. Mitch thanks very much for the call and good luck to you.

Here's an email we got from Rachel Thaler(ph). My fiancé and I get into friendly arguments about word meanings and especially pronunciations. He is from Long Island. I am not. Long Island, of course, pronounced by some locals as Long Dieland. We are both regular computer and web users, but we tend to reach for the paper dictionary to settle these disputes. Perhaps this is because our full sized Oxford American makes for such a good weapon for sore losers.

Mr. BARRETT: That doesn't sound like a friendly fight to me.

CONAN: Well, you know, maybe it's the pocket edition they resort to. We're talking with Grant Barrett, editor of the brand-new Official Dictionary of Unofficial English, with Geoffrey Pullum, the co-author of the "Language Log" blog, and with Martha Barnette, who's the author of three books on word origins and co-host of A Way With Words on our member station in San Diego, KPBS.

If you'd like to get in on the conversation our number is 800-989-8255. Email us, You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Morgan. Morgan calling from San Francisco.



MORGAN: Thanks for having me. I do crossword puzzles and I love to read and my mom's an English teacher and I have grown up with a strict way of how you speak English and how you write and I find that more and more people use t-i-l-l instead of until, or t-h-r-u instead of through.

And I just see these everywhere and I see them more in written content too, not just the Internet. And I feel like it's a slow degradation - either degradation of our language, or this is just the way that things are going to evolve. And I - it really irritates me, but I think I just have to accept it sometimes. I don't know. What do you think?

CONAN: This is an endless battle. Grant, why don't you go first?

Mr. BARRETT: Well, a couple of things. There are many experts who will argue with you about till, t-i-l-l, being an improper form of until.

Prof. PULLUM: Well, I won't argue with you. Can I come in on that. I was just thinking…

CONAN: Wait a minute, nobody has a dictionary do they.

(Soundbite of laugher)

CONAN: All right, go ahead.

Prof. PULLUM: Well, I can tell you the history. I happened to look it up. The fascinating thing is there are lots of people who think till is a casual shortening of until. It isn't. Till is the older word. And around 1400 people had a habit of embellishing things and they added on on the front of it, ontill. And, you know, it went on till such and such a time.

CONAN: I see.

Prof. PULLUM: And then those two merged and you ended up with two synonymous prepositions, till and until. But till is the older one, until is a pointless and unneeded embellishment of it that caught on. They are now both completely standard. Neither one is a corruption or a mistake or anything. So, to get irritated by that is a really interesting example of getting irritated by something you think is wrong, when in fact it's absolutely right.

CONAN: But Morgan's overall point about the degradation of language through all of these contractions, Grant Barrett, we've done this throughout our history, haven't we?

Mr. BARRETT: It's a natural instinct to be a little, I guess not really frightened but a little frustrated by the language changing around you. You think, I've just mastered this thing. I've just got it down pat, and here you go pulling the rug out from under me yet again. But the thing Morgan that I would say is, you still have the comprehension. You do understand what they're talking about. The forms might vary from what you prefer, but you're still getting the message.

The problem would be that if you woke up 400 years from now and didn't understand a thing. But the change is so gradual, this larger river of English moves very slowly between its banks, you will probably never get to the point where the language floods and overwhelms you. My…

Prof. PULLUM: I'd just like to tell…

Mr. BARRETT: Yeah, go ahead.

Prof. PULLUM: I'd just like to tell Morgan that she's not even near the riverbank here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. PULLUM: Till is absolutely fine and always has been and it's older than until. And the other thing she mentioned was thru, spelled t-h-r-u, but, of course, that's the same word in pronunciation it's identical. There's nothing happening there except the casual (unintelligible) shortening of the word, which you will see in some casual writing. But nothing's japanning here. There's nothing that could have led to any misunderstanding…

CONAN: Like Morgan, my fifth grade teacher would've given me a big black mark if I'd written t-h-r-u. So, anyway, (unintelligible).

Prof. PULLUM: Yes. It's informal as I say. But this is not degradation. I've seen degradation and this is not it.

CONAN: Martha, you've been trying to get in, go ahead.

Ms. BARNETTE: I would agree with that. Yes. I mean we get this complaint all the time on our show. English is going to hell in a hand basket. It's decaying and all that. I think English has never been more robust and vigorous. And the truth is that people have been complaining about our language decaying and -since John Donne in 1660 said our language is in a manner barbarous. And Jonathan Swift complained about it. I mean, this has been an ongoing complaint.

Prof. PULLUM: Martha is it a hand basket or a hand cart?

Ms. BARNETTE: It's interesting that you say that.

Prof. PULLUM: Perhaps it's in a hand basket and you put the hand basket in the hand cart and it goes to hell in that, maybe. I don't know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARRETT: It's the battle about language that matters though, right?

Ms. BARNETTE: It is. It is.

Mr. BARRETT: Morgan cares. She's fighting for what she believes is right and that's brilliant.

MORGAN: (Unintelligible) change and I just need to accept it and…

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. BARRETT: No, but keep fighting.

CONAN: Fight the good fight. You'll go to linguistic heaven.

Prof. PULLUM: No, no fight the good fight, Morgan.

Mr. BARRETT: You're not necessarily going to win.

Prof. PULLUM: Everything's fine.

MORGAN: I'm just going to keep doing the crossword puzzle.

Mr. BARRETT: Alright if you sit back and accept these things without battling for them, then that's the mistake. The mistake is not to say this is wrong.

CONAN: Alright Morgan thank very much for the call. We appreciate it.

MORGAN: Thank you.

CONAN: And good luck.

MORGAN: Thanks.

CONAN: Bye-bye. We're going to take a couple more of your calls on words and the web when we come back from a short break. We're also going to be talking with Gideon Defoe, the author of The Pirates!: An Adventure with Scientists, when we come back. Also Jonathan Storm, the TV critic of the Philadelphia Enquirer will join us from Las Vegas, where he's seen a preview of the Cirque du Soleil about the Beatles: Love. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Here are the headlines from some of the other stories we're following here today at NPR News. Israel is continuing its offensive in the Gaza Strip, aiming to force Palestinian militants to release an abducted Israeli soldier. Today artillery shells were fired into parts of northern Gaza hours after fighter jets knocked out power and water for most people who live in Gaza.

And the Supreme Court upheld most of the changes made in Texas's Congressional boundaries. Changes driven by then House Majority Leader Tom Delay. The justices did rule that in the case of one district, the map violates the Voting Rights Act. Details on those stories and, of course, much more later today on ALL THING CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, rolling down Route 66 cemented America's love of the open road. The creation of the interstate highway system in 1956 shifted it into a new gear. Americas love affair with the road. The interstate turns 50, tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

In a few minutes, John, Paul, George, Ringo, on the trapeze? But let's continue our conversation now on words and the web. Our guests are Grant Barrett, editor of the brand-new Official Dictionary of Unofficial English and editor of the Double-Tongued Word Wrester web site. Geoffrey Pullum is the co-author of the Language Log blog. And also with us Martha Barnette, who is co-host of A Way With Words on KPBS, our member station in San Diego.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Craig. Craig's with us from Columbus, Ohio.

CRAIG (CALLER): Hi. How are you doing?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

CRAIG: I just wanted to say mostly you were talking about on the internet looking up things and all these things that are coming up in blogs and strange words. I mostly look those up when I'm on the internet itself. I don't go to any like dictionary.

I spend a lot of time, you know, while I'm at the library - I kind of keep my computer use there, so I don't have it here at home constantly - but I find I use my dictionary at home a lot more and simply because when I'm looking up a word, I'll often come across two or three others that I find fascinating. And part of that joy is the romance of new information in your hand and actually physically holding the book.

CONAN: Yeah, Grant Barrett, reading the dictionary's one of my - all of our favorite ways of avoiding work.

Mr. BARRETT: Everyone tells me that. They also read the shampoo bottle if you listen to them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CRAIG: Oh, the best. The word (unintelligible) is in every shampoo.

Mr. BARRETT: But what about (unintelligible).

CONAN: But what about - anyway, go ahead.

Mr. BARRETT: The thing is looking up a word really does become kind of like a self-created shaggy dog story. You really never get to the end because you were led down these strange paths and into new areas. I do know a lot of people tell me, again anecdotal evidence is all that is, but they do say, my increased use of digital dictionaries has increased my offline use as well. Because I want that instant kind of - I want that instant ability to know what a word means. I don't want to be stuck here and trapped in the middle of a sentence without an answer.

CONAN: And, of course, if you use a real dictionary you do have to have to spell. But, Martha, go ahead. I'm sorry.

Ms. BARNETTE: I was just going to say, we put out a call to our listeners recently and we asked for a word for exactly the kind of phenomenon you're describing. That kind of joyful roaming around, browsing in a dictionary, and we got several suggestions. And my favorite was seren-dictionary.

CONAN: Geoffrey Pullum, are you going to try that one?

Prof. PULLUM: I will bet roughly even odds on that one. I don't know if (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. PULLUM: I do want to say something about a distinction I see being missed here between using the World Wide Web as data, which Grant has talked about -it's his evidence base for concluding things about the language - versus using it as an authority, where it settles a question.

When Grant is gathering words to enter what their meanings seem to be when they're brand new words, the web is data there. But if you're going to use the web as an authority, be very careful. You can't use Google as a spell checker. You won't even be able to find out how to spell the names of the months. But you can go to Merriam-Webster's site and get a really good dictionary in electronic interactive form, which is terrific. But that's not exactly using the Web at all. It's using the Web as an interface through the same old wonderful Merriam-Webster Dictionary of the English language. That's using a book, basically, but in a new medium. What Grant was talking about...

CRAIG: I'm wondering if any of you have criteria by which you judge a dictionary. Because I often have a certain word I look up anytime I've come across a dictionary - whether it be old or brand new - and it's kind of an arbitrary word, but I just use it to see if I think this is going to be a good dictionary for my usage. And the word I use is merkin.

Prof. PULLUM: Yeah.

CRAIG: Which is kind of an odd word.

(Soundbite of laughter)


Prof. PULLUM: How often do you need it?

CRAIG: And I find if a dictionary has that, it usually has anything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. PULLUM: (Unintelligible) regularly, but...

CONAN: All right.

Prof. PULLUM: Don't use it when talking to me, because I'm just going to look blank. I don't know what it means.

I don't think that's a good way to test a dictionary. I look for, basically, not being too out of date. I once noticed that my Concise Oxford Dictionary gave only one meaning for the word awful, and that was tending to inspire awe or wonderment.

CONAN: That seems a little inadequate, doesn't it?

Prof. PULLUM: Yeah, so I got rid of that. That was an old edition, you know...

Mr. BARRETT: One they gave you when you were in school?

Prof. PULLUM: I expect it to be a bit more modern than that, to be not more than 10 or 20 years out of date. That's about the best you can expect from a dictionary in print. And the other thing is I expect it to be descriptive rather than prescriptive in the crazy sense. It shouldn't be telling me how I ought to use a word, if in fact hardly anybody is following that practice. It should be telling me how the word is used among the sort of people I want to be taken as one of - English speakers.

CONAN: Craig, thanks very much.

CRAIG: Thank you.

CONAN: And thanks to all of our guests, we appreciate your tine.

Grant Barnette, editor of the Official Dictionary of Unofficial English. Thanks very much.

Mr. BARRETT: Thank you for having me today. It's Grant Barrett.

CONAN: Grant Barrett.

Ms. BARNETTE: And I'm the Barnette.

CONAN: You're the Barnette. Well, you know, these are the...

Mr. BARRETT: I could hear Martha giggling.

CONAN: ...these are the way mistakes get made. It's going to end up in the transcripts wrong.

Ms. BARNETTE: This is the way rumors get started.

CONAN: Ooh, I didn't know that! So you find out - anyway.

Mr. BARRETT: Martha, will you marry - no.

CONAN: Geoffrey Pullum, I think I got that right, thanks to you as well.

Prof. PULLUM: You did.

CONAN: All right.

Prof. PULLUM: Nice talking to you, Neal.

CONAN: Co-Author of the Language Log blog. And Martha Barnette, the co-host of A Way With Words on KPBS. Thanks to you all, we appreciate it.

Ms. BARNETTE: Thanks, Neal. This was fun.

CONAN: And when we come back, pirates.

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