Drat! Plutoed again!

Posted by Daniel Pendick
on Thursday, January 11, 2007

I love words. Or as I sometimes say after firing off a particularly groan-inducing pun or double entendre, "I'm a word guy." So imagine my excitement, as both a lifelong word guy and a member of the Astronomy staff, when I heard the news that the American Dialect Society (ADS) had declared plutoed its word of the year.

Plutoed means "to be demoted or devalued." As in, "One day you're a planet, the next you're not." Rodney Dangerfield would understand. Sometimes, even if you are an icy celestial body two-thirds the diameter of Earth's Moon, you just don't get no respect.

The ADS is composed of linguists, lexographers, etymologists, grammarians, and a bevy of other types of professional word guys and gals. Each year at its annual meeting, the ADS winnows down a list of nominees over a 2-day period. This year, Pluto got some new respect-at least as a word.

"Plutoed" is a fine example of creating a neologism — a new word, term, or phrase — by transforming a noun into a verb. The process of converting a noun into a verb is a lot easier than converting a planet into a ... um, whatever.

I chatted with David K. Barnhart the other day about the practice. He is a member of the ADS, head of Lexik House Publishers, and a big kahuna in the dictionary business. He publishes the Barnhart Dictionary Companion, a quarterly compendium of new words, word meanings, and word usages. You could say he's a guy who chooses his words carefully.

Barnhart explained that while people in many languages convert nouns into verbs, speakers of English — particularly American English — may have a special talent for the practice. "They are receptive to pushing words around the way they want them to work," he told me.

It seems to me other members of the solar system should share in Pluto's spotlight. As far as I know, the only other heavenly body that has been verb-alized is the Moon. And we all know what it is to be mooned.

How about Mercury, the winged messenger? When a bicycle courier speeds by you on a city street, nearly knocking you over, you've been mercuried.

Venus? That's easy. If you want to get venused, you go to a day spa and pay lots of money to be transformed into a goddess of beauty.

Let's not forget the smaller but equally fascinating bodies, like Titan.  Just last week, a leaky tractor trailer used my driveway to turn around and titaned hydrocarbons all over the pavement ...

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