5

Can it ever be concluded that an alleged word is not actually a word? Obviously, if a word is not in a particular dictionary, it does not mean the word is any less of a word than the ones that do appear in the dictionary.

What about words like irregardless or administrate, which seem to be self-contained logical fallacies? Can one conclude definitively that they are not "real" or "proper" words?

In other words is the statement

"xyz" is not a word

always false?

  • 2
    xyz is apparently pronounced /ɪksiːz/. – Andrew Leach Dec 20 '14 at 11:25
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    There is no governing body in English set up to determine the lexicon at any moment in time. Definitions of 'word' are contradictory and imprecise: most people would say that the appearance of say rrr-s-s-gfxyz in print or in a maths textbook does not make the string a word. Most would say that there has to be a certain degree of 'acceptedness' and of common understanding of what a word's denotation is. Everybody says that new words appear. But some claim that - - - - - say has made it to word status, while others say it's not in general enough use to make that claim... – Edwin Ashworth Dec 20 '14 at 11:43
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    "Is 'xyz' a word?" is one of the most common questions. And rightly so. One needs to check the context-related meaning of the word 'word' to answer the question of whether 'xyz' is a "word." The fact seems to be that it can be definitively stated if a certain 'xyz' is a word, but not if it is not a word. – Kris Dec 20 '14 at 13:24
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    @Edwin It's kind of like ‘language’ and ‘dialect’. Decades of academics studying these thugs in detail have been unable to come up with a definition of word they can agree on, so I think perhaps you're being a bit ambitious in thinking we can do so here. ;-) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 20 '14 at 21:52
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    The act of saying or writing conjures a word into existence. Beyond that point it's all a matter of debating whether or not it's a proper word. – Wayfaring Stranger Dec 21 '14 at 14:07
12

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.

On recombinatoriality

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.

Administrate, Irregardless

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:

    1. A by-form of ADMINISTER v. (a sacrament, oath, medicine).
    2. To manage or direct (affairs). Now usu. absol. or intr. Cf. ADMINISTER v.¹.
    3. 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.


Summary

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.


Manufacturer’s Notice
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.

3

This is really a philosophy question. Proving a negative is possible, but who wants to waste all that time?

If word xyz ever existed, then there is evidence in the form of a written record.
There is no evidence of xyz as a word in any written record.
Therefore, word xyz never existed.

But, I didn’t prove that the two premises were true; I just asserted them.

As explained in You Can Prove a Negative:

it would be a grievous mistake to insist that someone prove all the premises of any argument they might give. The only way to prove, say, that there is no evidence of (word xyz) in the (written record) is by giving an argument to that conclusion. Of course one would then have to prove the premises of that argument by giving further arguments, and then prove the premises of those further arguments, ad infinitum. Which premises we should take on credit and which need payment up front is a matter of long and involved debate among epistemologists. But one thing is certain: if proving things requires that an infinite number of premises get proved first, we’re not going to prove much of anything at all, positive or negative.

People insist that others prove a negative mostly because they want to believe what there is little evidence for. Oh, well.

  • 1
    There is a difference between falsifying a claim and proving "non-existence" of an entity. :) – ScotM Dec 20 '14 at 22:45
1

I like to keep things simple. So I'll start by saying "If it has meaning to you and to someone else, it is a word."

If you follow Ferdinand de Saussure, the relationship between signifier and signified is arbitrary. There is no natural reason why the signifier "tree" should be any more valid that "arbol." A word is simply a symbol of sorts that conveys meaning between two or more people.

Edit: So to answer your question. No, no one can say with any kind of certainty that a word is not a word.

  • Can you find an authority saying that there is no need for 'the qualification that it be in general use or in use in a specific discipline or by a specific group' as TRomano puts it? By 'specific group' I'm pretty sure he doesn't just mean 'you and someone else'. And discussion in this whole thread is meaningless if people are using different senses of 'word'. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 21 '14 at 8:13
  • The arbitrary nature of relationship between signifier and signified is a cornerstone for most all of modern literary criticism. Some, Deconstructionists for example, would argue that the "two or more" is actually an unnecessary qualification as well. I don't agree with that extreme of a view, but the fact is that most of modern communications studies begins with this model. TRomano is definition of a "word" (i.e. something that is blessed as a word by a governing body) is one that most semioticians would disagree with. – John Dahle Jan 11 '15 at 19:31
  • Most semioticians? You don't agree with ...? In maths, I've seen 'mathematical word' to mean white-space-bounded unhyphenated string'. Permutation of letters. Obviously, that's not a definition for general use. Collins has, for 'word': 1. (Linguistics) one of the units of speech or writing that native speakers of a language usually regard as the smallest isolable meaningful element of the language... But who defines 'meaningful' and who determines which subset of native speakers? – Edwin Ashworth Jan 11 '15 at 19:58
1

Philosophically, the statement you are testing,

"xyz" is not a word"

is an unverifiable statement.

If someone wants to claim that using xyz in the test statement is an actual use of the word, the investigation becomes a game of absurd claims. Let us assume that is not the case.

It could be false, and that would be easily verifiable by documenting the existence of xyz in any dictionary.

But if it were true, there is no rational philosophical mechanism to prove the "non-existence" of an entity. The simple rational proof of that statement is found in this conditional claim: "If we are not omniscient, then it may exist outside of our knowledge."

Since none of us can claim omniscience, the "non-existence" of a word must be defined in terms of an acceptable perimeter of knowledge.

The real argument is this:

"What is the acceptable perimeter of our lexical knowledge?"

In my humble opinion, if a person utters an expression in my presence, the word has come into existence. It may be terminally diseased with logical fallacies, and it's existence may be short lived, but a person has spoken a word to me to communicate the meaning of his mind. The confusion in his mind is accurately portrayed in the confusion of his words, but his words are words nonetheless. If one of his convoluted words meets with popular favor, it just might find its way to a dictionary one day--a la omnishambles 2013!

In my arrogant opinion, severely faulty words should die a quick death! A lot of words people speak have no chance of entering into our permanent written record. The people who use those words should be instructed gently, but firmly and systematically, to choose better words. That's what dictionaries are for :)

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    If 'word' were well-defined as 'one of the strings listed by publication P', then 'wordness' would be easily evaluable. The looseness of definition of 'word' makes further discussion tricky. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 21 '14 at 7:41
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    Agreed, @EdwinAshworth, a universal "standard of wordness" seems unlikely, but at minimum, every everyone engaged in this conversation should recognize the principle: reveal the perimeter of lexical knowledge that you are using to define "wordness". – ScotM Dec 21 '14 at 14:21
0

If we include as part of the definition of "word" the qualification that it be in general use or in use in a specific discipline or by a specific group, then yes, it is possible to say that something is not a word, or not yet a word. But if looking in the dictionary were the sole way of deciding this question, new words could never get added to dictionaries, could they? That's why lexicographers are paid the big bucks: they have to decide when something that is being said becomes an official "word".

  • ... Assuming that analysts carry out corpus studies accurately, lexicographers agree on thresholds and allowed domains, someone keeps a master list (over 1 000 000 words of which OED defines 600 000) ... – Edwin Ashworth Dec 20 '14 at 14:54
  • New domains are always being created too. A word might have meaning on eBay, or twitter, or Facebook, or among gamers who participate in online role-playing games. So that's another question: When is a domain a domain? Is it required that words be spoken aloud to qualify as a "word"? Or is appearance in a typographic medium sufficient? Must a word have a pronunciation? – TRomano Dec 20 '14 at 15:13
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    I don't think they're paid that much. – Mitch Dec 20 '14 at 16:39
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    From what (I think) I remember reading, even the OED compilers state that 'non-inclusion in OED is not proof of non-wordness'. So it seems that lexicographers are paid rather to decide when something that is being said should be included in their dictionary. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 20 '14 at 17:56
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    @ Edwin... have you come around to this notion in the past two weeks? Methinks you were espousing a different stance not long ago... – Rusty Tuba Dec 21 '14 at 6:42

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