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Impactful Ignorals

A subscriber asked me whether the word is spelled exceedence or exceedance. It was a surprisingly hard question to answer, since many people would say there’s no such word, and it appears in very few dictionaries (the Fourth Edition of the American Heritage Dictionary being the only one, so far as I know). An online search through AltaVista, however, produced the remarkable information that there were more than 30,000 examples of it recorded (most spelling it exceedance, a form that one might expect from related compounds).

If the word, however spelled, is so common, why isn’t it in most dictionaries? By one of those odd coincidences, a similar question was asked by another subscriber in reference to impactful; yet another commented on the noun use of strive, as in “our strive towards profitability”, found quite often online but which is also unnoticed by lexicographers.

The opinion of many people, especially those who have been trained in conventional writing environments, would be that such usages are a reflection of the dumbing-down effect of the Internet, in which badly written, badly spelled, and ignorant text is widespread.

Many dictionary writers and other specialist language watchers take a more positive view. They would argue that what we are seeing here is a genuinely new and fascinating phenomenon. For the first time in history, large numbers of people, of widely varying educational standards, are able to make the results of their writing available to anyone who cares to enquire. For the first time, too, through the medium of computer databases, it is possible to search for, collect and summarise what is being written.

This unique combination is producing lots of examples like the ones quoted above. Some are certainly just ignorance. Some seem to be the result of a short-term failure in the brain’s processing, so that a writer can’t for the moment think of agreement, and invents agreeance.

BW (Before the Web), when writing that became publicly available had first to pass under the watchful eye of a sub-editor, such formations would have been blue-pencilled into conventional forms. What we are seeing is surely not a new phenomenon in itself, but an apparently accelerated evolution of word creation, a sudden outpouring of large numbers of unmediated examples of a process that has been going on for as long as we have had language. Some such words are certainly not as new as they seem: the Oxford English Dictionary database has an example of exceedance from 1836; impactful is known from a learned journal of 1973 and is probably older still.

So why do so many people dislike such creations? It may be a hang-over of an older view, that the creation of new words was a mark only of badly-educated writers. In the nineteenth century, for example, good writers took great care to avoid seeming to invent new terms, though they sometimes did so unwittingly. Mark Twain claimed never to have coined a word as far as he knew, though historical dictionaries list him as the first user of many. Thomas Hardy once wrote: “Once or twice recently I have looked up a word in the dictionary for fear of being again accused of coining, and have found it there right enough — only to read on and find that the sole authority is myself in a half-forgotten novel”.

Many of these words cannot be regarded simply as mistakes, because they serve a useful purpose. There’s no simple alternative to impactful, for example. To avoid exceedance one has to write a rather awkward construction involving the verbal noun exceeding. Though the noun strive could be replaced by synonyms such as effort or attempt, it suggests a great and sustained effort that the alternatives do not quite convey. Another example is ignoral, the quality or state of being ignored. This was championed by the British writer Richard Boston in the 1970s on the grounds that nothing similar existed; this is rare, and often used facetiously when it does appear.

If these words are useful and are of some age why aren’t they in most dictionaries? It’s not that lexicographers are slow to catch on to them (their reading programmes flag them quickly enough), nor that they dislike them (dictionary makers, in their professional capacities, have no views on the relative desirability of words) but rather that such words are still uncommon off the Net (though this is changing). If that suggests a prejudice against online sources, even if an unconscious one, you may well be right.

Since small dictionaries are hard pressed for space, and regularly weed out less frequently used terms to make room for the continual influx of, for example, new technical terms, it’s unsurprising that a term like ignoral should be left on the discard pile. It is less obvious why exceedance should be, since it has a useful specialist meaning — it refers to the amount by which some quantity exceeds a permitted maximum or a stated norm. Its editors tell me that the big Oxford English Dictionary will certainly notice all of them, though it will take a while, since the current revision is working forward from M and it will be a year or several before its researchers get to them.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 03 Nov 2001