Beyonce: Budding Linguist?

From "Beyoncé’s Boost," The Sunday Times, Perth, Australia, 9 March 2006, by Justine Parker and wires:

Bootylicious, the term coined by the former Destiny’s Child star for her own dangerous curves - and made famous by the hit single of the same name - will reportedly be added to the dictionary.

But the Naughty Girl singer is not too impressed by her newfound status as a wordsmith.

“I’m not very proud of that. It’s in the dictionary - it’s crazy,” she said to Britain’s TV Hits magazine.

The 24-year-old, who is famous for her hot hip-shaking in film clips for songs such as Crazy In Love, says she would have stuck it out and put more thought into the term if she had known it would be recorded in the lexicon.

“I wrote the song, but I wish there was another word I could have come up with if I was going to have a word in the dictionary,” she said to the pop mag.

The budding linguist, who is dating rap king Jay-Z, hasn’t yet had a chance to see if the dictionary’s definition is by the book, but she has offered her own spin on the word.

“I don’t know what it says in the dictionary but my definition is beautiful, bountiful and bounce-able,” she said.

Stories about Beyoncé Knowles’s coining of bootylicious have been appearing in English-language newspapers around the world of late. Now, I know better than to expect deep, linguistic scholarship from news reporters who write about pop stars and their music. But there are so many things wrong with the articles like the one quoted above that I just have to speak up.

First, Ms. Knowles did not coin the term bootylicious.

Second, it is not a recent addition to the Oxford English Dictionary, although it may be a recent addition to other dictionaries.

Third, there is no such thing as an "official" word.

Fourth, what in the heck is "the dictionary", in some articles given as "the English dictionary"?

And fifth, there is rampant plagiarism here as these stories all contain virtually the same wording, but no credit to a wire service or other source is given (although some of the stories, like the one quoted here, credit unspecified "wires").

And I won’t even bother to complain about the description of Ms. Knowles as a "budding linguist." That’s just the writer being playful. Besides, the earliest versions of the story use the term "stunning star" instead, with the change to "budding linguist" happening in the last week or so.

Did Beyoncé coin bootylicious? The answer is no, as any reporter who spent 30 seconds looking up the term in the online OED would find out. The Destiny’s Child single of that name came out in 2001, but the term, meaning sexually attractive, especially having an attractive rump, has been in use since at least 1994. The earliest citation is the OED is from the Lewiston, (Idaho) Morning Tribune from 17 January of that year. Now, by the time a hip-hop term appears in an Idaho newspaper, it must be pretty mainstream. It is all but certain that the term was in widespread use well before 1994. Undoubtedly, Beyoncé’s song helped popularize the term, but there is no way she invented it. There is even earlier sense of bootylicious, meaning bad or weak, dating to at least 1992. And the root word booty, meaning sex, dates back to the 1920s.

Now it’s common for people to mistake the first citation in a dictionary for a term’s coinage. Rarely is the earliest citation the first use of a term. Rather, it’s the first use that the lexicographers could find. The OED, for example, includes 85 first citations from Mark Twain, including lunkhead (Huckleberry Finn, 1884), Chinawoman (Innocents at Home, 1872), reminiscing (Autobiography, before 1910), and mossbacked (Letters, 1889). Twain was probably not the first to use any of these words. Instead, he is simply (one of) the first significant writers to use the words, but because he is Mark Twain, his uses of the terms have survived and come to the attention of lexicographers. There were countless non-famous people who used these words before Twain. Even if the first citation in the OED had been from the Beyoncé song, it would still probably not be her invention.

So has bootylicious been recently added to "the dictionary"? The OED has included it since September 2004. Why news reports are just getting around to noticing it now is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps it has recently been added to another dictionary. But if that’s the case, the articles’ use of "the dictionary" is maddeningly unspecific.

Which brings me to my third and fourth complaints. Now, I don’t expect newspaper reporters, especially those that write articles about Ms. Knowles, and their editors to be familiar with the ins and outs of linguistics. But it is not too much to expect that those who make a living by writing have a basic knowledge of the fundamental tools of the trade. To wit, what a dictionary is and how to use it.

First there was the aforementioned failure to do a basic fact check. Now, there is a claim that there is some sort of "official" list of approved English words. Reporters should know this is not the case without even asking. And there is the failure to cite which dictionary has recently added the term. Any professional writer should be aware that there are many different dictionaries and you a good writer is specific when referring to one. At least they didn’t use the term Webster’s. (For those new to the newsletter, the term Webster’s is not trademarked and anyone is free to call their dictionary Webster’s. Many different dictionaries do. Some, like Merriam-Webster are excellent sources; others are less so. Referring to Webster’s is utterly meaningless.)

Finally, there is the plagiarism in these articles. This is what I find most astounding. How any professional news organization could tolerate this is just amazing. Doesn’t anyone remember Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass? Those scandals weren’t that long ago.

Now, I’m sure you’re saying "calm down, Dave; it’s just a silly little article about a pop star and a slang term." On one level that is true. The story and its errors are insignificant. But it is an indicator of a much deeper problem that runs to the heart of edited journalism–professionalism and editorial review.

Newspaper readership is declining and all sorts of professional news organizations are wondering how to deal with the competition from bloggers and other citizen journalists. The problem is that amateur writers, working alone and from home (and often in their pajamas) are turning out news stories that are every bit as good as those coming from professional news organizations. (And often better–the pajamahadeen, at least, are usually scrupulous about citing their sources.)

If professional journalism is to survive, it must rely on its one advantage–editors. Fact checking, multiple (preferably non-anonymous) sources, and rigid adherence to editorial standards are a must, even in silly little stories about pop stars and slang. If one can’t trust your local newspaper to get basic facts right, why pay for it? One might as well rely on that anonymous person on the internet–they’re just as likely as the newspaper to be right.

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