Words are things people say or write
As Lewis Caroll so famously wrote:
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
Or as another English don would later pen to everlasting fame:
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.
The Mathom-house it was called; for anything that Hobbits had no immediate use for, but were unwilling to throw away, they called a mathom.
It was of silver-steel which the elves call mithril, and with it went a belt of pearls and crystals.
‘Begone, foul dwimmerlaik, lord of carrion!’
You may not know those words, but words they are — now. Even if your dictionary does not include the emboldened words above which are from Tolkien’s legendarium (although the OED does), they are all still words. Interestingly, only one is a genuine invention. The rest you just didn’t know.
This miracle of word-creation is by no means limited to the English. Here are some examples from American writers instead:
Furthermore, the hue fuligin, which is darker than black, admirably erases all folds, bunchings, and gatherings so far as the eye is concerned, showing only a featureless dark. [Gene Wolfe]
I remember watching once when there was an official of some sort up there with you, and the condemned man and a hieromonach. [Gene Wolfe]
“If you knew how much I am forced to eat and drink for courtesy’s sake, you’d know how much I relish the company of someone whose hospitable offers I can refuse. I don’t suppose your fraternity has ever considered using food as a torment, instead of starvation?”
“It is called planteration, Archon.” [Gene Wolfe]
Even if it had been provided with a sufficient number of troops, in addition to its clavigers, to fend off the attacks of the autochthons, zoanthrops, and cultellarii who roamed the countryside, not to mention the armed retinues of the petty exultants (who could never be relied upon), it would still have been impossible to provision without the services of an army to escort the supply trains. [Gene Wolfe]
Since then, I have learned that the weapon is called a lu-civee, and that Agia had it because Vodalus had forbidden any but his own bodyguard to carry arms in his presence. [Gene Wolfe]
I believe it was only a few minutes later that I heard the flapping of wings near me. I opened my eyes and saw a jhereg at the edge of the clearing, near the dead teckla, looking at me. [Steven Brust]
Aliera came to his rescue. “The basic idea,” she said, “is simple enough: Everything is made of matter, or energy, which is the same thing in a less organized form. Amorphia is the opposite of matter. The purple vein in that rock is necrophia. Necrophia is a substance which can control amorphia, and which responds to the human — or Eastern — brain. [Steven Brust]
“You did not employ temporal fugue,” says Anubis, not even looking downward at the wreck that had been Dargoth. [Roger Zelazny]
“Yes. Where’s that frawlpin? I ought to refrib it once more, before. . . .” [Roger Zelazny]
Creation myths often portray things brought into existence by the speaking of their name, whether that should be the very cosmos itself or merely the words by which previously unnamed creatures or pharmaceutical concoctions would forevermore be known. Words are that way: to speak one is to make one.
From slithy toves at the top all the way down to refribbed frawlpins at the bottom, these supercited terms are all of them words. They are not grunts or hoots, crashes or scritches. Neither are they signs or symbols, emoticons or emoji. They are words, words one and all.
What dictionaries do — and what they don’t do
It is not the job of any dictionary to say that something is “not a word”, and you will be hard-pressed to find one claiming otherwise. Words are created at need by the very act of using them. Some may be nonce-words coined for that unique occasion; others may be little known outside of their topic domain, while others are quickly understood by native speakers given appropriate context and education. It is completely possible for a word to be used by just a single individual: it is still a word.
Of course some words might not be recognized, or might not be considered respectable or polite enough for broad civil discourse. They might even be used catachrestically due to a misunderstanding by whoever said or wrote them.
None of that matters, and none of it should ever be taken to mean that these are somehow “not words”. By definition, they must be, for they are something said or wrote using language.
Infinite fecundity and your son, Skinnerrhynchus
Suppose you someday decide to name your newborn son Skinnerrhynchus. By doing that, you will have created that word! It is possible, perhaps even probable all things considered, that your son may not fully appreciate you for your wondrous act of creation, but a genuine, 100% true-and-true word it will surely be: Words are things people say or right. Period. That’s it.
Having written Skinnerrhynchus upon his birth certificate, or even you and you alone just calling him that in private play between the two of you, this of course by definition makes Skinnerrhynchus a word, since it is now a word that at least one person has said or written. It is not random analphabetic noise created by sampling the murmuring chaos of the echoes of the Big Bang. It is a word.
Indeed it would even be a proper noun, no less, since it would be your son’s name. Sure, maybe only you and he and the hospital he was born at know that word, but this is utterly irrelevant to whether it’s a word. Of course his name is a word: you just created them both.
And when in the fullness of time he should choose to be called Skinny rather than be forever saddled by something hard to say and harder still to spell, he then will have hypocoristically created yet another word, brand spanking new right then and there. And well that he did, for who would care to go through life yclept Skinnerrhynchus? But find it in the dictionary you will not. Doesn’t matter. It’s still a word.
It is the nature of human beings to create words for their use as need commands, and their freedom in this creative act is wholly without bound, for thus did language come to be: people made things up — they always have, and they always will. Word-creation is an imprescindible aspect of any living language.
Words do not derive meaning from dictionaries. Words derive meaning from use, imbued with that meaning by those who use them. Dictionaries can at best document some of these meanings, this uses. But they do not create them.
Just as it is never the job of any dictionary to say that something is not a word, neither is it the job of any dictionary to list all words in a language. Many are omitted to save space, especially if they are uncommon, specialist terms used by only a minority of the populace.
This is particularly noticeable in so-called “abridged” or “learners” dictionaries, but every dictionary choose which words it chooses to include and which words it chooses not to include. The ones it didn’t include are of course still words — just words that it did not include.
Furthermore — and understanding this is critical to learning how to actually use a dictionary — many words are omitted because they are trivially derivable by applying productive affixes to existing words. Un- + [VERB] is a word for all possible verbs, just as non- + [ADJECTIVE] is a word for all possible adjectives. There are for all intents and purposes infinitely many of these words. Dictionaries don’t matter here, although if you stem the word and look up the pieces, dictionaries can help you suss out what the intended meaning is. This is like how no dictionary is never going to list all possible combinations of subject and object for a verb; it is the same here with productive affixes, like the infinite verbs producible via un- + [NOUN] + ‑ize, or even via de- + [NOUN] + ‑ify.
Language is combinatoric; otherwise it isn’t language, and this mixing around of things to create to new combinations occurs not merely up at the syntagmatic level alone, but also down at the very lexemic level itself.
The two specific examples you point out as having the potential for being “non-words”, irregardless and administrate, are the products of just such derivational morphology. They combine separate affixes with existing root words to create new words.
Administrate was once held by some to be an irregular past participle of the verb administer, although the OED calls this use obsolete, its latest citation being from 1715. As a verb, the OED says it is an alternate formation from the Latin administrare which also gave us administer. It attaches no stigma to the word:
- A by-form of ADMINISTER v. (a sacrament, oath, medicine).
- To manage or direct (affairs). Now usu. absol. or intr. Cf. ADMINISTER v.¹.
- To organize or manage the recording and application of information in (a list, register, etc.).
Irregardless is a chiefly North American word that the OED says means the same thing as regardless means, and which it labels a non-standard or humorous use that probably derives from blending together irrespective and regardless. By saying it is non-standard or humorous, the OED calls to your attention that this word might not be suitable in standard or non-humorous contexts.
Words are simply things that people say or write. Even if you have never been exposed to the word before, even if others do not know what the word means or spit in disgust when they say it, and even if it has never before been used by anyone anywhen, a word it remains. Its existence is incontrovertible, for an existence proof is trivially demonstrated, and this suffices.
So not only can you never prove a word does not exist, merely asking the question of some word can suffice to prove that it does.
This posting is composed entirely of words, duly formatted and punctuated. If some of these words have made you wonder or others made you smile, then my work here is done.