“Said” for 2016 Word of the Year

I just got back from the American Association for Corpus Linguistics conference in Ames, Iowa, and I’m calling the Word of the Year: for 2016 it will be said.

You may think you know said. It’s the past participle of say. You’ve said it yourself many times. What’s so special about it?

What’s special was revealed by Jordan Smith, a graduate student at Iowa State, in his presentation on Saturday afternoon. said is becoming a determiner. It is grammaticizing.

In addition to its participial use (“once the words were said”) you’ve probably seen said used as an attributive adjective (“the said property”). It indicates that the noun it modifies refers to a person, place or thing that has been mentioned recently, with the same noun, and that the speaker/writer expects it to be active in the hearer/reader’s memory.

Attributive said is strongly associated with legal documents, as in its first recorded use in the English Parliament in 1327. The Oxford English Dictionary reports that said was used outside of legal contexts as early as 1973, in the English sitcom Steptoe and Son. In this context it was clearly a joke: a word that evoked law courts used in a lower-class colloquial context.

Jordan Smith examined uses of said in the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) and found that attributive said has increasingly been used without the for several years now, and outside the legal domain. He observes that syntactic changes and increased frequency have been named by linguists like Joan Bybee as harbingers of grammaticization.

Grammaticization (also known as grammaticalization; search for both) is when an ordinary lexical item (like a noun, verb or adjective, or even a phrase) becomes a grammatical item (like a pronoun, preposition or auxiliary verb). For example, while is a noun meaning a period of time, but it was grammaticized to a conjunction indicating simultaneity. Used is an adjective meaning accustomed, as in “I was used to being lonely,” but has also become part of an auxiliary indicating habitual aspect as in “I used to be lonely.”

Jordan is suggesting that said is no longer just a verb or even an adjective, it’s our newest determiner in English. Determiners are an exclusive club of short words that modify nouns. They include articles like an and the, but also demonstratives like these and quantifiers like several.

Noun phrases without a determiner tend to refer to generic categories, as I have been doing with phrases like legal documents and grammaticization. That is clearly not what is going on with said girlfriend. Noun phrases with said refer to a specific item or group of items, in some sense even more so than noun phrases with the.

Thanks to the wireless Internet at the AACL, I began searching for of said on Twitter, and found a ton of examples. There are plenty for in said examples as well.

It’s not just happening in English. The analogous French ledit is also used outside the legal domain. Its reanalysis is a bit different, since it incorporates the article rather than replacing it. Like most noun modifiers in French it is inflected for gender and number. I haven’t found anything similar for Spanish.

In 2013 the American Dialect Society chose because as its Word of the Year. Because is already a conjunction, having grammaticized from the noun cause, but it has been reanalyzed again into a preposition, as in because science. Some theorists consider this to be a further step in grammaticization. And here is a twenty-first century prepositional phrase for you, folks: because (P) said (Det) relationship (N).

After Jordan’s presentation it struck me that said is an excellent candidate for the 2016 Word of the year. And if the ADS isn’t interested, maybe another organization like the International Cognitive Linguistics Association, can sponsor a Grammaticization of the Year.

3 thoughts on ““Said” for 2016 Word of the Year

  1. Alon Lischinsky

    I haven’t found anything similar for Spanish.

    Dicho is a bog-standard determiner, and has been so since Old Spanish:

    Por ende elas deuan dichas tierras de uuey dia en delantre del nuestro iuro sean remouidas e ayenadas, al uuestro sennoriu sean traydas e confirmadas, que uos ayades liure podestad de uender, de donar, de fazer delas elo que uos ploguier enna uida e despues a la muerte. (Anonymous 1248 document collected in Ruiz Asencio, J. M. [1993]. Documentos de la catedral de León. León: Archivo Histórico Diocesano)

    Los párpados deben lavarse con agua destilada para retirar las secreciones y mantenerlos limpios. No deben utilizarse infusiones de manzanilla ya que hay personas alérgicas a dicha planta y, por tanto, se puede producir un agravamiento de la sintomatología. (Gutiérrez Serantes, L. [2002]. 365 días para vivir con salud. Madrid: Temas de Hoy)

    It can be optionally preceded by the definite article, though I believe the anarthrous form is more common.

  2. grvsmth

    Thanks, Alon, but it’s interesting that I didn’t succeed in finding “dicho” as a determiner on Twittter. In contrast, “ledit” just jumps right out at you.

  3. Alon Lischinsky

    @Angus: dicho is relatively high-register in contemporary Spanish; I’d wager most examples will come from edited prose, and in particular from legal language.

    That said, it wasn’t hard to find some examples on Twitter of a more colloquial nature.

    It seems Google Ngrams always parses dicho as a past participle, which makes it hard to evaluate frequency trends. Funnily enough, though, dicha is better treated. If we trust the accuracy of their POS tagging, it seems that French does in fact use said determiner much more frequently.

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