Sunday, January 14, 2007

Pluto takes its linguistic revenge

Pluto takes its linguistic revenge

14 Jan 2007

PLUTO is one persistent planet. Kicked out of planetary orbit by astronomers on Aug 24 last year, it simply refuses to revolve into the recesses of the layman’s memories.

It has, in fact, found an orbit around wordsmiths.

The planet Pluto has given birth to a new word: "to pluto" or "plutoed". The words were coined following the decision to demote Pluto from a planet to a dwarf planet. To "pluto", therefore, means to demote or devalue someone or something.

And linguists, lexicographers, editors, historians, etymologists, professors, writers and scholars belonging to the American Dialect Society named "to pluto/plutoed" Word of the Year for 2006. What a victory. Within four months, it has won recognition.

Although the word’s connotation may be negative, Pluto will become more entrenched in the layman’s mind. If, that is, the word "plutoed" finds common currency among speakers and writers.If not, it will be just a fad word that, to borrow from the greatest English wordsmith ever, "struts and frets its (his) hour upon the stage and then is heard no more".

If you remember, at its meeting in Prague last year, the General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union redefined the term planet and summarily sent Pluto crashing out of the planetary system.

Pluto, the Roman equivalent of the mythological Greek god Hades, was demoted by a show of hands, to a "dwarf planet". And there it is languishing despite the efforts of some astronomers who did not agree with the demotion to realign its orbit so that it can join its planetary brethren again.

The 117-year-old American Dialect Society voted for the word at its 17th annual Words-of-the-Year gathering on Jan 5. But victory for Pluto did not come easy. It had to slug it out with "climate canary" in a run-off vote.

"Climate canary" means "an organism or species whose poor health or declining numbers hint at a larger environmental catastrophe on the horizon".According to a Press release on the society’s website, the meeting was presided over by its executive secretary Allan Metcalf of McMurray College and its chairman of the New Words Committee, professor Wayne Glowka of George College and State University.

The American Dialect Society chose "truthiness" for 2005. "Truthiness" refers to the "quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true".

If you ask me, we already have another word for that: Wishful thinking. It’s unambiguous. It’s direct. And it has a softness of tone that truthiness does not.The word won official usage sanction when, last month, Merriam- Webster announced "truthiness" as its first Word of the Year (for last year) after an online survey.

The American Dialect Society website says the society, founded in 1889, "is dedicated to the study of the English language in North America, and of other languages, or dialects of other languages, influencing it or influenced by it".The Press release said the Word of the Year was interpreted in its broader sense as "vocabulary item", and included phrases.

It added: "In conducting the vote, they (society members) act in fun and not in any official capacity of inducting words into the English language."Glowka was quoted as saying: "It was good that the society focused on a genuine scientific concern though I believe the nomination came from outer space."

It also said that the society’s "sibling organisation", the American Name Society, voted Pluto as Name of the Year 2006 in its third annual Name of the Year contest.So, if someone you know is demoted and you are looking for a synonym, look no further than 4.28 billion kilometres to Pluto (its minimum distance from Earth).

Then again, "He has been plutoed" sounds rather crass, don’t you think? Particularly since "plutoed" rhymes with "torpedoed". It certainly gives a sinking feeling.

But if someone is "plutoed", one can always point upwards and say: "It was written in the stars."

I have July 14, 2015, emblazoned on my calendar. That’s our arrival date at Pluto. We are now quite certain of that.

— Alan Stern (project leader of Nasa’s New Horizons mission to Pluto, launched in January 2006)

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