Last night, I called Benjamin Zimmer to ask him about this elusive million-word milestone. Mr. Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. When I mentioned the subject of my call, I could hear his heart sink, the way your doctor sighs when you ask (again) about the health benefits of bull semen.
SOME NEW WORDS are extroverts – they want to be noticed. Just look at gobsmacked, currently in the spotlight along with Susan Boyle, the singing phenom from “Britain’s Got Talent,” and her 100 million YouTube hits. When Boyle told reporters she was “gobsmacked” at her reception, Ben Zimmer noted last week in his column at Visual Thesaurus, lookups of the word spiked sharply on Google Trends.
I ran this speculation past Ben Zimmer of visualthesaurus.com, who replied: “I think your hunch is correct about the provenance of the ‘I don’t do X’ phrasal template. There must have been a major influence from the stereotypical maid’s stipulation, ‘I don’t do windows,’ which attained catchphrase status by the mid-1970s as a staple of sitcoms and cartoons.”
But does the ready acceptance of this “phrasal template” mean we are living in syntax, undermining the rules of order and word relationships in sentence structure on which we base our grammar? “An interesting syntactic aspect is that the complement of do, regardless of whether it’s a noun or adjective, can take on a highly abstract quality,” Zimmer said. “When Larry Summers said, ‘I don’t do ticktock,’ he was taking the journalistic sense of ‘ticktock’ and abstracting it into a mass noun for the disclosure of behind-the-scenes gossip.”