Wednesday, February 28, 2007

What is a Word?

First, let me make it perfectly clear that this is a discussion that has raged for centuries. I know full well that everybody has his or her own opinion on this matter, and that I am not going to resolve this issue today. This is an overview and a bit of personal opinion, as relates to online dictionaries.

Intuitively, we all know the answer. A word is a unit of language conveying some meaning. But how do we decide what is a real word? We look in a dictionary, of course. What do we do if we're writing a dictionary?

We are caught between cataloging what is "right" (prescriptivism) and what is actually done (descriptivism). The pendulum has lately swung towards descriptivism, and I would say that there are some good reasons for that trend. The language that is spoken on the streets is not the same language that is written in academia. Somebody learning a language may genuinely need help sorting out the less proper terms in it.

Take, for instance, colloquialisms such as "irrespective" and "humongous", and all the phrases that have gotten squished together into amalgams like "gotcha" and "woulda". Most people would readily agree that these words do not belong in a college thesis paper.

What is the scrupulous lexicographer to do? Fortunately, it is not a strict either-or question, especially in a work not substantially limited by size. In an electronic resource, we can put them in, anyway. To satisfy the formal sorts, the perscriptivists, we can then place a prominent usage note in the entry, explaining just why a writer might wish to use caution with the term: ginormous is a colloquial term, regarded by many to be something less than a proper word. Thus, the reader is both informed and cautioned.

That's fine for most of the slang and jargon, but we have another problem. People keep making up new words. My sister in law coined the term "muskaroon" to mean generically any small, furry creature that scurries past too quickly to identify. Squirrels, chipmunks, gophers, and presumably rabbits would all qualify. So we have a unit of language with a symbol and a meaning. The trouble is, if you walked up to people on the street and inquired whether there were muskaroons in the area, nobody would be able to answer who hadn't talked lately to my sister in law, and that is a small minority of people, indeed.

The test here is usage. Can we demonstrate that the word is in common use? Now, depending on the character of the dictionary, we can define the rules various ways. Was it used by so many independent sources? Did anybody important (such as Shakespeare or a prominent academic journal) publish the word?

Generally, we also try to find and present examples of the term in what is called "running text". That means that it is in a paragraph, and isn't only used as somebody's nickname, say. The edge is still a fuzzy one. Are the citations in traditional print sources, such and books and journals, or are they sprinkled in a couple blogs and forums? Was the word used in only one limited context, or in a variety of sources and over a period of years? These sorts of tests can help to weed out many of the more questionable entries. At some point, though, it may yet come down to a judgment call, if not on whether a word is real, then on how to apply the rules. In these cases, I advise the users of a dictionary to bring a healthy dose of skepticism with them, to recall that even dictionaries are not infallible, and to trust at the very least that these decisions are made by real people who care for the project.

If, knowing all that, you find you don't like the way "they" are running the place, you are invited to do a better job.

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