Joining the "conversate" conversation

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My fellow Atlantic blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates posted a couple of days ago about "conversate": is it a word or not? He interviewed Jesse Sheidlower, of the Oxford English Dictionary, and they had a good conversation, well worth reading. Jesse is a smart guy and a first-rate lexicographer. But one thing no lexicographer is likely to tell you is that we don't need dictionaries anymore to tell us what counts as a word. We can decide for ourselves.


As Jesse said, what lexicographers do is search out words that people use, see how they use them, and write them up. Adding a new word to the dictionary doesn't amount to giving it a stamp of approval; it just means that the lexicographers found the word in wide enough use over a long enough time that they decided dictionary users might want to know about it. 

Well, owing to the Internet, anyone today can figure out how widely used a given word is. Just google it. "Conversate" is all over the Web. If, however, you want to find out whether it's in standard use -- which is often what people mean when they wonder if something is a "word" -- archives of edited media, such as Google News, are a better place to look. According to a  search I did just now, "conversate" has turned up in the newspapers and press releases, etc., that Google News tracks exactly five times in the past month. That's very few. Two of the five come from Ta-Nehisi himself; two are from AllHipHop.com, and one was published in an actual newspaper, in a quote from a basketball player. Isn't this already starting to be a good basis for drawing your own conclusions about "conversate"?
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Visit Barbara Wallraff’s blog, at barbarawallraff .theatlantic.com, to see more commentary on language and to submit Word Fugitive queries and words that meet David K. Prince’s need. Readers whose queries are published and those who take top honors will receive an autographed copy of Wallraff’s most recent book, Word Fugitives. More

Barbara WallraffBarbara Wallraff, a contributing editor and columnist for The Atlantic, has worked for the magazine for 25 years. She is also a weekly syndicated newspaper columnist for King Features and the author of Word Fugitives (2006), Your Own Words (2004), and the national best-seller Word Court (2000). Her writing about language has appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Wilson Quarterly, The American Scholar, and The New York Times Magazine.

Wallraff has been an invited speaker at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the National Writers Workshop, the Nieman Foundation, Columbia Journalism School, the British Institute Library of Florence, and national or international conventions of the American Copy Editors Society, the Council of Science Editors, the International Education of Students organization, and the Journalism Education Association. She has been interviewed about language on the Nightly News With Tom Brokaw and dozens of radio programs including Fresh Air, The Diane Rehm Show, and All Things Considered. National Public Radio's Morning Edition once commissioned her to copy edit the U.S. Constitution. She is a member of the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel. The Genus V edition of the game Trivial Pursuit contains a question about Wallraff and her Word Court column.

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