Fighting words

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Speaking of new definitions, your favorite college dictionary and mine, Merriam Webster, has cracked the book wide open to new words in honor of its 200th anniversary. Personal favorites to date:

* several definitions for the shrug-accompanying meh
* the brilliant contraction of crap and dilapidated in decrapitated
* the wisecracking Canadian contribution zidane, a violent outburst named after the recent World Cup antics of France’s soccer team captain.

Now anyone can make like W.C. Minor, the convicted murderer and contributor of more than 10,000 definitions to the Oxford English Dictionary, as memorably retold in Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary – only, um, without the murder part. Not that Minor is the only homicidal wordsmith: A linguistic study of Mafia lingo parsed FBI wiretap transcripts, and came across this gem of wiseguy wordplay.

A: You front me the shampoo and I’ll front you the dog pills… What time tomorrow?
B: Anytime after twelve.
A: You won’t hold my lady friend up?
B: No.
A: Somebody will just exchange dogs.

What does this mean, exactly? I could tell you, but then I’d have to, you know, exchange dogs with you. The same study also finds that Mafiosi have 20 words for murder – which contrary to longstanding linguistic legend, is far more than the number of words the Inuit have for snow.

Linguist Geoffrey Pullum has a dare for you the next time you hear this myth come up in conversation: Cite the two main Inuit words for snow, qanik (snowflake) and aput (snowdrift), and challenge everyone in the room to come up with the other 98. That should put a stop to that myth – not to mention any dinner party invitations.

Got any choice words for us? Bring on those comments.

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