I'm wondering what the minimal requirement for a word to be an actual word is. My opinion is that a word is a word if it can be understood and defined by everyone who hears it in conversation.

For example, let's say my friend and I are having a discussion about Quant Wall Street algorithmic traders. During the discussion I use words like "Quantism" and "Quantic" etc. They aren't words, but the meaning is immediately apparent and understood. Are these now English words?

Similarly a phrase like "I'm so sick, I'm going to vom"-- everyone knows what's impending.

Thanks for your time and input.

closed as general reference by J.R., Kristina Lopez, James McLeod, Bravo, Mitch Mar 23 '13 at 17:03

This question is too basic; it can be definitively and permanently answered by a single link to a standard internet reference source designed specifically to find that type of information. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    "A word is the smallest element that may be uttered in isolation with semantic or pragmatic content (with literal or practical meaning)." — Wikipedia. Both quantism and quantic are words. Vom is just a word cut off — you say yourself that something is still impending. Nothing prevents you from using "vom" as a word in its own right, though, like cas or pro. – RegDwigнt Mar 23 '13 at 12:08
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    Although the presence/occurrence of a particular gloss in the OED usually suffices that it be deemed “a word”, absence of the same by no means indicates that something is not one such. Indeed, the OED’s own definition of “a word” is much broader than that. – tchrist Mar 23 '13 at 12:49
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    Related, if not a dupe: english.stackexchange.com/questions/107865/… – coleopterist Mar 23 '13 at 12:57
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    "Can be understood by everyone who hears it" ... far too restrictive. Most words in my dictionary are not words by that criterion! – GEdgar Mar 23 '13 at 16:11
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    Have you considered checking a dictionary? That might provide some initial help. – Mitch Mar 23 '13 at 17:04

A word is a string of sounds or letters which can be identified as a grammatical unit, larger than a morpheme, but shorter than a phrase, and playing a structural role in a sentence.


Word is not a term that has a single definition.

For one thing, what constitutes a word is different from language to language -- in polysynthetic languages, for instance, there's small difference between word and sentence.

For another, there are three common ways we use word
(the terms below are developed in P.H. Matthews' Morphology, Cambridge U Press):

  1. We say the verbs lie and lay are different words, though they have some forms in common.
    This is the definition of word as Lexeme.

  2. We say that the present tense form of lie is the word lies, pronounced /layz/.
    This is the definition of word as Word-Form, i.e, some particular form of a lexeme.

  3. We say that a word pronounced /layz/ can have many meanings.
    This is the definition of word as Phonological Word, i.e, its pronunciation.

Here's an illustration of how it works in English.

So, there is no single definition; it depends on how one is using the term.

You're quite correct, though, that speakers make up words on the spot all the time,
and if they work and fill some need for others, they may be invented and used again.
But mostly they just die; sort of like mosquito eggs.

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    Yes, but this doesn't really address the issue - should strings like quantic, nudiustertian, vom, interphrastically, wumper, 1010-acid, irregardless, authoritativest, vonk, dfhnxd be allowed to be (1) used as words willy-nilly, (2) used as words with an accompanying glossary, (3) called words? And who decides where to draw the line? The OED isn't perfect, but has anyone any better ideas? The Urban Dictionary? (According to Wikipedia, "vonk" is a pseudoword in English, while "dfhnxd" is not.) – Edwin Ashworth Mar 23 '13 at 16:43
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    Any question about whether certain words should be allowed to be "used" in some fashion, or "called" anything at all, is already seriously silly. How in the world would such a decision be enforced, pray tell? And by whom? And on whom? And for what purpose? And -- as you correctly point out -- there isn't anybody with the authority to "draw the line". Except, of course, for The Academy, but that's already a well-established institution in Cloud-Cuckoo Land. – John Lawler Mar 23 '13 at 16:56
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    Oh, and by the way, words are never strings. That's an orthographic term, referring to writing, which is not language but technology. Words are always spoken. Although they may be represented with more or less success in writing, written "words" are not really worda, but their shadow on the wall. – John Lawler Mar 23 '13 at 17:01
  • Really? word (wûrd) n. 1. A sound or a combination of sounds, or its representation in writing or printing (AHDEL) (bolding mine): the metonymy allows synonymy with string. And though the compilers at the OED use a descriptive approach, they certainly in turn influence usage. I'm not sure whether they give usage recommendations, such as the useful ones in the AHDEL ( eg at thefreedictionary.com/comprise ). And of course, I'm not advocating a grammar police. But a grammar / lexis referee now... – Edwin Ashworth Mar 23 '13 at 17:35
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    Dictionaries are naturally fans of the printed word. That doesn't make them arbiters of what "word" means. They define some words, but they define phrases and affixes too; and most of them don't say anything useful about grammar. Nah, quoting a dictionary definition of word (especially one that gives a stupid pronunciation like wûrd) is essentially as effective as proving that God exists because it says so in the Bible. – John Lawler Mar 23 '13 at 18:14

Regarding the area of “Speech, utterance, verbal expression.”, the OED says that the word has this primary sense: “

1. collect. pl. Things said, or something said; speech, talk, discourse, utterance; esp. with possessive, what the person mentioned says or said; (one’s) form of expression or language.

Often in such phrases as in these, other, etc. words, in (such-and-such) language; many words, few words (see also (def#22), (def#26)); to give words to, to put into words, to express by means of language; beyond words, incapable of being expressed in language, unutterable, unspeakable.”

So words are anything that’s expressed using language. As you might imagine, the full entry is longer than most religious tracts handed out by the most studious of proselytizers. Another interesting and applicable, and noteworthy, sense is sense 2:

2a. sing. Something said (= sense (def#1)); a speech or utterance; esp. defined by a possessive or demonstrative. arch.

2b. with negative expressed or implied, or with every: Any or the least utterance, statement, or fragment of speech; anything at all (said or written).

Those are the first few parts of the first two senses. There are 29 distinct (or reasonably distinct) primary senses given for word in the OED, including almost uncountably many compounds.

  • This is disingenuous, a half-answer, not emphasising sufficiently the sense of intelligible communication. And if you say that you started with 'Regarding the area of “Speech, utterance, verbal expression.” ', it shouldn't be offered as an answer, as it obviously doesn't address the sense the OP is discussing. If words are totally utterance- and utterer- orientated, what is the point of dictionaries? – Edwin Ashworth Mar 23 '13 at 13:55
  • @EdwinAshworth I actually have no idea what you are talking about. – tchrist Mar 23 '13 at 15:15
  • OP: 'My opinion is that a word is a word if it can be understood and defined by everyone who hears it in conversation.' (not a workable definition, but it addresses the heart of the matter - word, in arguably its primary sense, and certainly not in a secondary sense, is a unit of communication, and thus is not applicable to (widely) unintelligible strings - whether they are hoped to be decipherable or not. The AHDEL's first sense is: 1. A sound or a combination of sounds, or its representation in writing or printing, that symbolizes and communicates a meaning (bolding mine). – Edwin Ashworth Mar 23 '13 at 16:21
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    This seems germane: (Wikipedia, at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pseudoword ): A pseudoword is a unit of speech or text that appears to be an actual word in a certain language (at least superficially), while in fact it has no meaning in the lexicon. It is a kind of non-lexical vocable. Another link (Nordquist) provides the delightful synonyms jibberwacky and wug word. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 23 '13 at 16:46

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