04 June 2010


In the last line of my previous post (here), I suggested that words always "tell the simple truth". I intended this to be ironic. In other words, I was saying exactly the reverse of what I actually believe.

The trouble with irony is that people are apt to misunderstand it. There was recently a splendid rant (here) by a chap called Greg Laden, arguing that of course it is possible to count how many words there are in a language (something I discussed previously here), and anyone who thinks the opposite is a fool. But in writing this piece, he completely destroyed his own argument by inventing lots of new words, like curmudgeonistic, pedanticmaniacal, and jibberishosity. Now, if it is so easy to invent new words like that and still be understood, how can one possibly obtain a finite figure for the number of words in a language?

Of course, Greg Laden was being ironic: he knows perfectly well that the definition of a word can be quite elusive. Unfortunately, if you read the comments below his blog, and also some of the comments in the Language Log discussion of it (here), it seems that quite a few people missed the irony and took him seriously. In the end, someone called Nick Lamb helpfully spelled this out in one of the comments in the Language Log discussion.

In reality, language is rarely straightforward, and we often have to dig under the surface to determine the real meaning of what people say and write. I just hope that not too many people misunderstood my statement that words always tell the simple truth.