6

Sometimes people look up a word in Merriam-Webster and declare the word non-existing when they fail to find it there. As this doesn't seem the best approach, some may try to look up as many dictionaries as they can, which is more thorough, though still not exhaustive.

Long story short, are there any rules to determine beyond dispute whether a word is actually an English word?

EDIT: I admit being caught: this is not a question. Not any longer. It was intended as a question, but now it is just a discussion seed.

I'd been browsing through Qs and As and would sometimes stumble on somebody's "that's not a word", "this is not an English word" etc, so I decided to learn whether there were any rules the ELL/ELU people used to determine whether the thing was actually a word.

Thank you for your answers and comments, they're all valuable, each in its own way.

  • 5
    This question appears to be off-topic because it should have been asked on main, not meta. And so far as I can recall, this is the first time I've ever thought that since coming to ELU. – FumbleFingers Sep 23 '13 at 23:07
  • 1
    @FumbleFingers: I thought the question fits meta, not main, because it is pertaining to the rules of discussion and is rather an internal matter. This is not really an ELL question at all, so if it is on-topic anywhere, it is here, or otherwise it is off-topic anywhere and should therefore be closed and deleted. – Mykola Sep 24 '13 at 4:16
  • I'm not sure whether this best placed on main, or meta, but it's a valid question. Sympathy upvoting. – Andrew Grimm Sep 24 '13 at 4:20
  • While the main question could have been asked on the main site, I thought the introduction indicated this has its place on meta, too. I don't think it hurts to have it here. – J.R. Sep 24 '13 at 8:21
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In a word, no.

First of all, there’s the thorny issue of defining what a word even is. Is a phrasal verb one word, or two? Is a proper noun a word? How about a persons’s name, like BreAzia? Or the names of Pokemon creatures, like Meowth and Psyduck? (I know plenty of 9-year-olds who will insist those are words!) Or proper nouns from famous fiction, like Slytherin, Alderaan, Klingon, and Scrooge? What if I make up my own word, like ponyfraggis? If that’s not a “word,” what is it? What about acronyms and abbreviations? (S.C.U.B.A. diving, anyone?) Or prefixes and suffixes? What about slang, jargon, loanwords, eggcorns, and Spoonerisms? Is zoot a word? (Most dictionaries will list zoot suit, but not zoot.) Is hors a word? What if I'm serving hors d’oeuvres?

Secondly, finding a word in several dictionaries can pretty much demonstratively show that something is a “word”, but not finding a word in a dictionary proves nothing. Language evolves; new words are added to dictionaries regularly (D’oh! I'll bet you already knew that), but words aren’t usually added until they’ve demonstrated sufficient durability. That means dictionaries are often five or ten years behind the corner bars, water coolers, sports arenas, and television scripts – but for good reason: dictionary editors don't want to add words into their dictionaries only to take them out again five years later.

Thirdly, there's plenty of scientific jargon that hasn't wormed its way onto dictionary pages yet. Even the phat OED doesn't list qubit yet (my spellchecker doesn’t like it, either), but our Peter Shor would tell you that it is a word faster than you can factor 15. Moreover, what’s true in science is also true in marketing; if 7-Up is the Uncola, does that make Uncola a word?

I don’t mean to sound Pecksniffian, but my answer to your question is a resounding, “No, of course not!” Rules, beyond dispute? Trying to pinpoint when a “real word” begins is like trying to figure out when life begins, or when the universe began.

If you believe in real words that aren’t in the dictionary (like Tinkerbell, for example), clap your hands.

  • but our Peter Shor would tell you that it is a word faster than you can factor 15 Favourite sentence in this post :) – Cruncher Nov 15 '13 at 16:22
  • What do we do if we're happy and we know it? :P – SarahofGaia Aug 13 '15 at 21:52
5

When you use a word, when talking in English, and you are not just mentioning the word, (e.g. if I mention the word "sprangoring" I'm not using it as an English word just mentioning it as an example of the use/mention distinction) if you understand what you mean by it then it is an English word in your idolect.

If you are using the word while talking to people who speak the same as you and they understand it as an English word then it is an English word, in your dialect.

If you hear people using it in another dialect too, then it has a broader appeal.

3

Asking whether a word is an English word isn't really a question with a yes/no answer. In reality, the answer is all shades of grey.

Even ignoring neologisms that take their time to find their way into dictionaries, a look at the etymology of the words already listed will show the many and varied sources of words now regarded as 'English'. At what point does a foreign word being used by English speakers become an English word? I don't think there can be a rule for that.

Indeed, it may take hundreds or thousands of years. For example, consider 'au fait'. Clearly French, it is used regularly in the English language. Is it therefore now also English? Words such as 'medium' still have their plural formed in the Latin manner ('media'). Does that mean that it isn't yet fully absorbed into English? 'Index' and others can be pluralised under Latin or English rules ('indices', 'indexes') so their transition is perhaps more advanced, though 2,000 years is rather a long time already...

Also, as an aside on J.R.'s (excellent) answer, I believe that as far as the OED is concerned, once a word is in the dictionary it is never removed.

  • Perhaps a word can have existence-ness, but if so, I think we should be careful to distinguish this trait from in-the-dictionary-ness. – snailboat Sep 23 '13 at 23:31
  • @toandfro - as far as the OED is concerned, then, all the more reason to be cautious about adding one. – J.R. Sep 24 '13 at 8:17

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