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Let's Bury the Not-a-Word Myth
by Mark Peters
Turns of phrase like "irregardless," "prolly," and "imma" can be cringeworthy, but that doesn't mean they aren't words.
Like any word nerd, the falling of snow reminds me of all those words for the white stuff used by the Inuits—and what a crock that hard-to-kill urban legend turned out to be.
As many people—but especially Geoffrey Pullum in The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language—have established, the Eskimos-have-a-bazillion-words-for-snow story is as incorrect as it is enduring. It’s one of many language myths or superstitions with a cockroach-like hardiness, such as the hooey that says you can’t end a sentence with a preposition, or use “I” in academic work, or that adjectives and adverbs are somehow lesser words than nouns and verbs. For some reason, language breeds more myths than Zeus himself.
Here’s the myth I hate the most: the idea that some words are not words. As recent tweets show, it’s a popular gripe:
"STOP SAYING EXPRESSO. IT IS NOT A WORD. ESSSSSSSPRESSSSSSO. It is an S. It comes from a language which DOES NOT HAVE AN X. #anger"
Jan. 7, M W Platts
"To those of you who didn't know. . . Conversate is NOT a word. The correct word is [converse]."
Jan. 5, Jerrica Jones
"You know a word I hate? Blogosphere. It's not even a word, and shouldn't be treated as such."
Jan. 3, Sam Wood
"’irregardless’ is NOT a word. That is all. #badgrammar"
Jan. 2, Michael Jones
"I always want to write 'prolly' when I know it's not a word lol"
Jan. 2, Rish
It’s easy to find plenty of other folks claiming "imma," "north-ness," "electronical," "unsensitive," "catastrophize," "worser," and "spelt" are also not words. (Or not "real words," which is reminiscent of the foolishness over who’s a "real American"). These not-a-word claims are silly, illogical, and can mostly be summed up like so: "I hate this word, therefore it is not a word. So there." This makes as much sense as a deranged birdwatcher who, for some reason, decided warblers were the devil’s work and therefore lacked bird-ness. As Stan Carey memorably put it: "Not a word is not an argument."
So why do people say words are not words? Sometimes, people are just unaware of how established a word is—for example, "prolly" and "irregardless" date from 1947 and 1912, respectively. Other times, people are insecure about their own word choices. In the Boston Globe, the lexicographer and Wordnik founder Erin McKean makes a fantastic point about how babbling about word-ness can discredit a writer:
Writers who hedge their use of unfamiliar, infrequent, or informal words with "I know that's not a real word," hoping to distance themselves from criticism, run the risk of creating doubt where perhaps none would have naturally arisen.
Often, people just don’t trust their own (or other people’s) ability to use affixes, even though it’s the nature of prefixes, suffixes, and infixes to be versatile. In fact, affixes are so versatile that I can use one of each type in the word "pre-Mayan-freakin'-pocalypse," which I just made up to describe 2011. As far as I know, "pre-Mayan-freakin'-pocalypse" has never been used before, but guess what? It's a word. In fact, words like that are a huge part of why I enjoy writing and thinking about language. Without such Lego-like word-making power, we would be stuck talking about blizzards and snowstorms and never hear about a snowpocalypse, snowmageddon, or—more recently—snownado. Affixes are useful tools for making real words—even if they’re not in a dictionary or smiled upon by the chain-rattling ghosts of our sixth grade English teachers.
Fear has a lot to do with this topic, I reckon. Besides ghosts and English teachers, most of us fear chaos. That fear drives us to comforting ideas like, "There are real words and fake words, and all the real words are in 'the dictionary.'" But the world is a helter-skelter place, especially in the lexicon. Dictionaries can never keep up with our ever-changing world of words, so we have to trust ourselves. We should listen to McKean, former editor of the New Oxford American Dictionary, who memorably wrote:
Being in the dictionary is not a badge of honor. People aren't limited to words I've managed to capture and pin down. A dog doesn't have to be registered with the American Kennel Association to be a dog. It still fetches your slippers; it just isn't pedigreed.
So, for the love of pancakes, don’t deny a word its word-ness. Even if a word bugs the living crap out of you, it’s still a word. Just ignore the small percentage of words that are annoying and focus on the enormous, fertile possibilities of English to create new words in any given situation or sentence. The fertility of English should be enjoyed. For example, check out this recent tweet:
"’we've been doofed!’, ‘DOOFED!’, ‘we've been bamboozled!’, ‘we've been smackledorfed!’,’thats not even a word and i agree with ya!!’"
Isn’t the world a better place with “smackledorfed” in it? I’m snorklewhacked that anyone could disagree.
Correction: An original version of this post included a typo of "Inuit" as "Intuit."
Mark Peters More InfoSome recent articles by Mark Peters:
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