Save the date: English nears a milestone

But a million words may not be all that excessive, the Monitor's language columnist suggests.

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Scarcely has the new year begun before the calendar pages start filling up with lunch dates promised in Christmas cards and notes-to-self about next time, seriously, getting an earlier start on holiday gift shopping.

But from The Economist comes a reminder of a notable date of an altogether higher order. Is your stylus poised?

It's April 29, 2009 – plus or minus a few days. That is when the English language is expected to acquire its millionth word. This prediction comes from Global Language Monitor, an organization in Austin, Texas, which uses proprietary software to track and analyze trends in language. "Global English" is its particular focus.

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A million words doesn't really seem excessive, given 1.35 billion speakers of English on the planet. That works out to only one word for every 1,350 speakers.

But the decision about just what is "a word" is not always absolutely clear cut. And just how do you count? Is dogs a separate word from dog? The Economist exudes skepticism but can't resist at least a brief celebration of the richness of English vocabulary, from the Scottish Highlands to Australia to India.

Among the words to have come into English from India, the Economist piece mentions shampoo. I might have guessed it had a French background. (Champoux?) Actually, Champoux turns out to be a French surname, and I've just wandered off to a French-Canadian genealogical site that is ... not on topic. Where was I? Shampoo, from the Hindi champo, was first recorded (1762) as a verb meaning to give a head massage. A century later it referred to washing hair, and a few years later, it referred to the soap with which one shampooed.

Hmm ... if English didn't have a word for it until basically the mid-1800s, does that mean that perhaps the English-speaking peoples did not have the thing itself? Short answer: yes.

The somewhat longer answer: People used ordinary soap to wash hair in earlier times but then had to deal with soapy residues, especially in places with hard water. No wonder the new compounds that came in during the 1930s seemed like progress.

In its references to Anglo-Indian vocabulary, The Economist makes passing reference to a phrase that may be unfamiliar to some but is worth knowing about: Hobson-Jobson. As Dictionary.com puts it, it's "the alteration of a word or phrase borrowed from a foreign language to accord more closely with the ... patterns of the borrowing language, as in English hoosegow from Spanish juzgado." You hear a foreign phrase and try to fit it into the language you know, in other words.

The phrase Hobson-Jobson goes back to 1634, to the early years of the British presence in India, as a mangled Anglicization of what British soldiers thought they were hearing during processions by Muslims during Muharram, an important period of mourning.

The soldiers misheard "Ya Hasan! Ya Husayn!" ("O Hassan! O Husain!"), a call of mourning for two grandsons of the prophet Muhammad who died fighting for the faith. "This," says the Online Etymology Dictionary, "led to the linguists' law of Hobson-Jobson, describing the effort to bring a new and strange word into harmony with the language."

The authors of a late 19th-century dictionary of Anglo-Indian vocabulary knew what they were doing when they picked "Hobson-Jobson" as its title. And the story behind the phrase gives a glimpse of how many layers of understanding human language involves.

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