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We all know that word meanings and usage change over time (though not all of us are happy about it). How long does a word have to be used in a particular way for that usage to be "okay"? At what point does it become "correct usage" and what determines that?

(It's hard to come up with an example that doesn't sound like peeving, so I'm making up a word.) If, for example, I started using the word "disregardless," most people would regard that as "wrong" or at least "not a real word." How many other people would have to use "disregardless" regularly for it to become an accepted word in the language? Does it matter if it's spoken or written? Does the "quality" of the speaker matter? (If the President uses the word, does that increase its "correctness" more than, say, when Bart Simpson uses it?) Is there a tipping point where a word goes from "made up" to "real" in the world at large, or is acceptance a gradual process throughout?

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Closely related: Descriptivism and widespread misspelling. –  RegDwigнt Jan 19 '11 at 18:49
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"If the President uses the word…" – I suggest that depends on the President. George W. Bush was not noted for his mastery of English, and I doubt that any of his novel expressions are today regarded as "correct"… –  Brian Nixon Jan 19 '11 at 20:48
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Neither was Warren G. Harding much known for his English usage (see Mencken's famous putdown of one of his speeches), yet his "normalcy" is accepted as a, well, normal word. –  Alex Jan 19 '11 at 21:55
    
@BrianNixon Don't misunderestimate the President's ablity to make up new words –  Jim Dec 9 '11 at 21:09
    
performant is a good example. As in "PowerPoint is the most performant sleeping aid known to mankind." –  Ian Apr 5 at 10:55
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4 Answers 4

up vote 11 down vote accepted

It depends on how useful a hole in the language the neologism is filling. If something becomes urgent as a topic of conversation and there was no word before, then it can quickly be accepted.

If a word is misspelled, people are more likely to resist the change, especially if the the old spelling is deeply entrenched, and it can take many years for the change to be accepted. It tends to go by critical mass; when enough 'respected' sources use a word - which used to mean broadsheet newspapers or literary magazines or novels or other books - then the lexicographers would pick it up and add it to the dictionaries, and the word would start to be accepted.

In the internet age, the process takes place much more rapidly. 'Weblog' gave way to 'blog' in almost no time at all.

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It's not just when there is a gap -- a common "misuse" of words I've come across is where people are using revert as a synonym for reply; this seems to have spread from upper management circles and people thinking they sound cleverer by using a different word to the minions (who actually use the correct word) –  Rowland Shaw Feb 3 '11 at 12:18
    
I've never seen revert used to mean reply before. May I ask where (both geographically and in which circles) you've seen this? Also, mild amusement at the use of "cleverer" when talking about 'misuse' of words. –  Doc Feb 24 at 7:20
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A silly answer although it's probably true: "When Google returns meaningful results without suggesting an alternative spelling"

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+1.. It is true many of us use google as spell checker. –  The King Jan 20 '11 at 9:44
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That's an interesting question, but it doesn't really have a well-defined answer. The useless but essentially correct answer is "when enough people think it's correct".

The thing is that, no matter how hard people try to argue otherwise, prescriptivism doesn't really work that well. Language changes are slow and amorphous, so it's hard to draw a definitive line in the sand where something goes from right to wrong. You can probably find points in time where it's pretty clear-cut if it's one or the other, but there's no exact point in time where it makes the transition.

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It depends how common the word is.

A very obscure technical term may only get a handful of mentions in print by a couple of authors so it's very easy to change - while a common word will remain unchanged for centuries.

The most famous recent one is "a flange of baboons" made up for the Gerald the Gorilla sketch on "not the nine O clock news" which made it in the OED "askoxford" site and is now used in scientific literature

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I love the "flange of baboons" story, but I have always wondered whether there are really many more examples like it. –  ShreevatsaR Nov 1 '11 at 3:45
    
I think pretty much all the collective nouns were made up by bored C16 authors –  mgb Nov 1 '11 at 3:51
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protected by RegDwigнt Nov 1 '11 at 6:07

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