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Is This a Word?

Every now and then somebody e-mails me along the lines of “I’ve come across this recently. Is it a word?” My instinct is to reply that if you can say it and spell it, then it’s a word. But such philosophising is hardly a reply to the question that’s actually being asked. What my questioners are seeking, of course, is permission, the stamp of authority that reassures them they will not be thought ignorant if they use their discovery.

Such enquiries are particularly smilesome because I find several hundred words a month about which I could ask the same question in the dozens of newspapers and periodicals that I read for Oxford Dictionaries. Here are some samples from a few issues of the British newspaper The Guardian earlier this year (forgive me for not glossing them, but space does not permit; some are fairly obvious in any case):

affluence test, artspeak, barfsome, beefcakeosity, blubsome, bodywhomping, campylobacteriosis, clamorous reed warbler, cyberwidow, depurpleise, earwitness, Education Action Zone, fibroephithelial, hamburger junction, horseburger, japeful, jelly-bagging, middle youth, Othello syndrome, pancuronium bromide, Patagonian toothfish, People’s Monarchy, petrol-head, portfolio career, pre-millennial tension, quantum computer, rocktabulous, schlockbuster, story arc, stylephile, telangiectasia, Teletubbified, trammel-netter, truncus arteriosus, woo-woo book, xenozoonose.

I noted these terms for one or other of several reasons. Most of them are either new or are recent imports I’ve not previously seen in British sources. A few are fresh compounds on older themes. Others are technical terms making a rare appearance in a non-specialist environment, and I’ve included a few names for flora and fauna that I know are under-represented in the Oxford databases.

New words are formed in a variety of ways, some of which overlap with each other. Here are the most important basic routes that new-word evolution takes:

Coining. Neologisms for novelty’s sake are invented for a single occasion and usually never seen again: FU money (the bit you put aside so you can tell your employer where to go if work gets insupportable); maghag (a female executive in the New York magazine business); screen sickness (what you get from obsessive Internet surfing); burb-babe (the latest Kylie Minogue replacement in an Australian soap).

Blending. Taking the end of one word and sticking it on the beginning of another is an extremely common process that accounts for a large proportion of all new words this century: digiverse (the online world, from digital + universe); videorazzi (celebrity-chasing photographers with video cameras, from video + paparazzi); spintronics (using the weird quantum properties of electron spin to construct new types of computer chips, from spin + electronics), opticute (cells fried by laser probes, from optical + electrocute, the latter itself a much older blend).

Affix breeding. Tacking on a prefix or a suffix adds a topical connotation to a common word that requires readers to understand both the old word and the affix: cyber- (so common for a while that Newsweek called it a cyberplague); tele-; Diana- (several terms were coined immediately after her death, including Dianabilia and Dianamania); -ati (on the model of literati, spawning glitterati, digerati, and even liggerati for party gatecrashers, from the English dialect word ligger for a freeloader); and particularly -gate, surely the oddest suffix ever to enter the language.

Extending set phrases. Changing the modifier while retaining the base word makes the original meaning applicable to other contexts or freshens the expression: road rage has spawned a whole glossary of imitative terms, such as trolley rage, phone rage, store rage and noise rage. (There was a minor altercation between two fishing boats in the Channel the other week which the coastguard on duty almost inevitably termed a case of trawler rage.) An earlier example is double whammy, popularised in Britain during the 1992 election campaign by Chris Patten, the then Chairman of the Conservative Party, which has spawned triple and even quadruple whammy.

Making words play new parts of speech. Turning nouns into adjectives and adverbs, verbs into nouns, and nouns into verbs is an extremely common process that people are quite unconscious of much of the time: for example, lounge-lizard, palimpsest, wok, king, beverage, forestgump (with only one r), nanotech, nutshell, power-broke have all appeared as verbs in the past few months (and verb itself has long since become a verb).

Reapplying or misapplying words or phrases. Feeding frenzy became a political cliché in the early nineties and bottom feeder has more recently appeared. Stepford Wives is a disparaging term currently fashionable at Westminster for the ultra-loyal young female intake of Labour MPs at the last election; I keep wanting to point out that the film had a sequel, Revenge of the Stepford Wives.

Reinventing or reintroducing old terms. It Girl (how many of those using that in British newspapers at the moment have heard of Clara Bow?); mezzobrow (first used in the 1920s, but making a minor comeback).

Playing with language. Mouth-lift (cosmetic dentistry); herdware (computer software to keep track of farm animals); black-water rafting (like the white-water equivalent, but in the dark in underground streams).

Words from whole cloth. Most commonly seen with trade names which must be unique, particularly pharmaceuticals. Examples are Rohypnol and Temazepam.

My enquirers could well ask “Is this a word?” about almost all of these examples because few of them are in current dictionaries. And if they’re not in the dictionary, people assume they’re not “real” words, since dictionaries are seen by most people as authorities or arbiters of good taste. Dictionary makers don’t view themselves in that light. They would say they don’t prescribe, but rather describe, making use of a wide range of evidence to determine how words are actually used, rather than how they should be used. You might say that lexicographers are the recording angels of language, not its law makers.

Given infinite resources, lexicographers could record every linguistic nuance that has ever occurred (whether any of us would be able to lift the resulting volumes, or want to, is another matter). But as they don’t have such resources, they have to edit, weed out old stuff to make way for the more vibrant or fresher material that’s more relevant to the needs of users today, and include only those words which are most likely to be met with by readers. Even the Oxford English Dictionary, which is spending more than $50 million to produce the third edition of that already monumental work by about 2010, expects to have to leave out much more of the new material it is collecting than it will be able to include.

I say “volume” because dictionary-making is still largely driven by the publishing cycles and formats of printed books, despite the rapid increase in the number that are appearing on CD-ROM (I can’t think of an English- language dictionary published only on disk and all those I have come across are essentially electronic analogues of their printed originals). It will be a long time before the book is made obsolete by its upstart electronic cousin because it’s such a superb solution to the problems of information storage and retrieval. Oxford University Press, for example, despite being ahead of the game with its pioneering CD-ROM of the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in 1992, still expects to produce a printed version of the third edition alongside its electronic one. And even if electronic publishing becomes the norm, there’s no getting over the need to research, select, compile, and edit entries, which is the resource-hungry part of dictionary publishing.

And though it’s possible to add extra material to electronic dictionaries that takes advantage of the capacity of disk media (such as pronunciation sound files, increased usage guidance, and multimedia illustrations), that also implies extra origination costs. And adding content may indeed be problematical: more is not necessarily better with dictionaries, as there’s only so much one can usefully say about any given word, and only so many citation examples and usage notes you can include before the reader’s eyes begin to glaze over and the electronic wood vanishes behind all those electronic trees.

So all dictionary-makers necessarily have to make judgements every time they select one word for inclusion but decide against another. Their criteria have little, if anything, to do with intrinsic value or supposed correctness (though they’re careful to flag obscene or informal terms). They focus rather on the extent to which a word is in common use or has become a permanent part of the language, based on the evidence that people like me collect for them. The aim is to provide an informed view across the language as it exists.

So, in a sense, lexicographers too are continually asking, “Is this a word?” and continually making educated guesses about what the answers are.

[A version of this article previously appeared in The Editorial Eye in May 1998 (Volume 21, No 5). Reproduced by courtesy of EEI Press.]

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Page created 23 May 1998; Last updated 27 Dec 1998