Thursday, January 08, 2009

The C word

When you need to smack down idiots, go to the best for help. Some commenters on Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog were giving him trouble for defending the word conversate. One even argued that until a word is in the OED it shouldn't be said.

How did TNC settle the argument?

Well, I had nothing better to do today, so I decided to call up the OED people and see if I could get an editor to talk to me.

They couldn't spare one of their toadie interns so he had to settle for Jesse Sheidlower. Coates gets right to the point, asking: So is conversate a word? As usual Sheidlower responds with a lovely display of knowledge and reason. And he offers up some pretty good lines.

They're all words, but it behooves us to be serious and ask, is it acceptable in this context? If you're delivering the State of the Union address, maybe "fuck" is not acceptable. If you're having sex with your girlfriend, maybe it is acceptable.


The comments are surprisingly well-balanced. Sheidlower made a good case and it shows. Only a few people are standing firm in their backwards view of language. And even some of the prescriptivist views are reasonably supported. Consider the view of laborlibert who writes:

Unfortunately the opinions of others do matter and as long as the consensus is that conversate is not a word and that aks or "mines" are improper, than these should be used sparingly in certain circles.

Alot of people in my office say "mines" and I advise them to knock it off. I'm not a language Nazi, I just think its for their own good.

This is close. It's true that usage determines the language. And usage is in many ways a product of opinion. But the consensus is obviously not that conversate is not a word. There is no clear consensus on this. And the circles in which the consensus is clearly intolerant are often unable to enforce their pet constraints. So they often don't matter. And If you're willing to use a word sparingly I say go ahead and use it confidently.

If you really care about the good of your peers, don't bother with changing their dialect. Stand up for dialectal equality and roll your eyes at ignorant disdain.

My favorite comment comes from KevDog who writes:

Also, since spell check flagged conversate, I just added it to my dictionary. So there.

Perfect. Choose your lexicon. Own your words. I love the spellcheck "ADD" option. That's how it works.

† And until I've eaten I have no right to get hungry.


  1. Alot of people in my office say "mines" and I advise them to knock it off.

    Why does this make me smile?

  2. The only word I dislike more than conversate is alot.

    Also, I appreciate how Sheidlower renounces questions of sexual morality & offers us the image of premarital sex as a time when using "fuck" during sex is acceptable...

    ...because in my experience, it's not acceptable in postmarital sex.


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