Twentyfive questions appear in the list of questions already asked on this forum that are similar to this question. Of those, 8 titles do not mention the "real word" phrase. The other 17 ask about a specific word, typically using a standard form: "Is X a real word". Additionally, I'm sure, many questions asked on this forum omit real and simply ask something to the effect of "Is X a word".

How can a question ask if a word is real without using the word as a word?

Detailed answers will be entertained. Explanations and examples of consensual approaches to designating some words as real, and others not, are of most value to me. How and when do, for example, scientific terms, become real terms? Nextmost in value are scales or systems of realness. For example, where do nonsense words, nonce-words, spurious words and neologisms fall on a scale of realness? within some system of realness? The central idea of both values (consensual approaches, and scales or systems) is to take the question beyond the realm of personal opinion as much as possible.

Any answers will be greatly appreciated.

Edit: It has been suggested that this question duplicates a question asking when a word becomes a word. This question differs markedly:

  1. Temporal considerations ("when") are secondary, if relevant at all.
  2. This question does not use a self-referential definition of 'word', unlike the suggested duplicate, which verges on incoherence by asking when a word becomes a word. But we all know what that question is meant to ask...or do we?
  3. While I'm sincere in saying any answers to my question are appreciated, certainly no answer solely or primarily referencing appearance in a dictionary will be accepted (in the constrained sense of 'accepted' used on this forum). No self-respecting dictionary will define 'word' in a primary sense as dependent on dictionary inclusion. For example, the primary definition of 'word, n.' in the OED is "I. Speech, utterance, verbal expression." This definition has no direct connection to appearance in one or more dictionaries.

Those specific considerations (and others along the same lines) aside, serious answers to my question would account for my mention of nonsense and nonce-words, et al. For example, the list of spurious words in the OED (compact edition): does the OED define 'spurious words' as 'unreal words'?

It seems to me that on a forum such as this, a working definition of "real word" would be sine qua non, and that self-defeating definitions such as reference to appearance in dictionaries which themselves define 'word' as something quite other than 'an entry in a dictionary or lexicon' would be rejected outright. Threshold elements in the working definition, on the other hand, might well be unavoidable: for example, "one or more occurrences of an utterance embued with communicative power" or some such gibberish might be construed as constituting part of a desirable answer to the question of what the phrase "real word" means.

Similarly, the assertion that what constitutes a "real word" is arbitrary is a non-answer. We all understand something when we encounter the phrase, and there is more commonality than not in our somewhat various understandings.

  • Until there is an agreed authority to pronounce judgement, the decision on the acceptedness or not of various candidates in the English lexicon must remain arbitrary. Sensible approaches to definitions of 'word' include some mention of frequency of use and, where applicable, inclusion in well-regarded dictionaries. But who decides what frequency of use and which dictionary/ies? Commented Aug 23, 2015 at 13:17
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    You might as well ask what the word "real" means. In fact, you spend paragraphs of so-called question to try to define what you mean by "real". That, my friend, is not a linguistic question, but rather a philosophical one. Commented Sep 7, 2015 at 9:03
  • @BrianHitchcock, Respectively venturous to disargue, sir. It's what's intended by others with the phrase that interests me, although it's true I would not know what I would mean if I were to ask such a question. Also, saliently, note that simple 'is X a word' commonly has the same value as 'is X a real word', in my opinion, as I point out in the question.
    – JEL
    Commented Sep 7, 2015 at 18:03
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    You are free to attempt to make any nonsense into a "real word" in every possible situation except one: Scrabble. Unlike English, Scrabble actually has official rules. Commented Sep 8, 2015 at 18:43
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    '... the assertion that what constitutes a "real word" is arbitrary is a non-answer ' is begging the question, especially if we less disingenuously substitute 'not rigidly defined or definable' for 'arbitrary'. The only way for this question not to be POB at the most basic level would be for there to be an arbitrarily imposed definition. Which would be even less useful than the present mess. Commented Sep 9, 2015 at 8:33

7 Answers 7


A word can be considered a real word even if it's not in an established dictionary. Many words that have yet to appear in dictionaries are widely understood, and could be added over time - if their usage continues. Others fall away over time, but during their peak, they would have been just as real as standard dictionary words.

Merriam-Webster's Help Section has a question on this: If a word is not in the dictionary, does that mean it isn't a real word? which indicates

One of the most prolific areas of change and variation in English is vocabulary; new words are constantly being coined to name or describe new inventions or innovations, or to better identify aspects of our rapidly changing world. Constraints of time, money, and staff would make it impossible for any dictionary, no matter how large, to capture a fully comprehensive account of all the words in the language. And even if such a leviathan reference was somehow fashioned, the dictionary would be obsolete the instant it was published as speakers and writers continued generating new terms to meet their constantly changing needs.


Most general English dictionaries are designed to include only those words that meet certain criteria of usage across wide areas and over extended periods of time. As a result, they may omit words that are still in the process of becoming established, those that are too highly specialized, or those that are so informal that they are rarely documented in professionally edited writing. The words left out are as real as those that gain entry; the former simply haven't met the criteria for dictionary entry – at least not yet (newer ones may ultimately gain admission to the dictionary's pages if they gain sufficient use).

  • 4
    Not only are there words that aren’t in the dictionary,, not everything in a dictionary is even a word.
    – tchrist
    Commented Sep 7, 2015 at 5:03
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    @tchrist On this one, I won't argue. We'd be bound to have different views. But as 'a real word' is ill-defined, the question is definitely POB. Commented Sep 7, 2015 at 9:04
  • @tchrist, Thanks for pointing that out--I thought I was going to have to. It goes beyond bogus words and spurious words, however: I would argue comfortably that abbreviations are deliberately constrasted with words until they are used as a part of speech. Compare "EGD, n." and "ELSS, abbr." in the list in the article you've linked.
    – JEL
    Commented Sep 7, 2015 at 18:28
  • 'A word can be considered a real word even if it's not in an established dictionary. Many words that have yet to appear in dictionaries are widely understood.' The snag is, when you've ruled out dictionary panels, who is left to pronounce when a candidate word has enough currency to be considered a 'true word'? Commented Sep 9, 2015 at 18:52
  • This was a useful, considerate answer. It seemed to give short shrift to the question, though.
    – JEL
    Commented Sep 9, 2015 at 21:01

If it shows up in a dictionary you respect, it's a real word. Dictionaries add words based on real-world usage. So if enough people use it in print, in multiple placed (e.g. books as well as internet) for a long enough time, it will show up in a dictionary. Of course, each dictionary decides how much "enough" is. For Urban Dictionary, which is crowdsourced, one posting makes it "real". For the official Oxford English Dictionary, which takes years to update, it requires a lot more instances of a new word before it is included. Other dictionaries, including Oxford Dictionaries Online, steer a course somewhere those extremes, adding words fairly quickly. some additions from last year:


But the "real" answer is that for English, there is no central authority that decides whether a word is "real"—a word is real if, when you use it, people (or at least your peeps) grok it.

Edit: I changed the first word of above answer from "When" to "If".


What is a word? There can't be a definite answer, unless one person uses it and another person understands it.

For most of us words are in the dictionary. But in scientific fields there are a lot of words that are in no standard dictionary and every day new scientific terms are invented.

My grandmother used words only she used. I have a lot of individual words or terms I use for language and grammar only for myself because a lot of grammar terms are vague, clumsy, unpractical or lacking. For me those terms are words as house or mouse.

Young children have words only the mother understands. So what is a word?


To answer your question:

How can a question ask if a word is real without using the word as a word?

I'd ask: Is X expression a real word? Let me explain. My apologies for such a long answer, but I think your question deserves it.


An explanation following widely accepted principles


  1. Humans can only describe what comes to be known to them through their senses.
  2. The data we collect from the real world through experience is stored in our consciousness in ideas.
  3. To transmit the data stored in an idea we use expressions.
  4. When the transmission of an idea, i.e. an expression, becomes meaningful to other party different than ourselves, thus allowing them to store a mirrored version of one of our experiences; we call that communication.
  5. Expressions are susceptible to having more than one interpretation.
  6. Ideas can always be expressed in more than one way.

Proposition 1

An expression to become a word must describe an item that belongs to the real world. This is evident by definition 1.

Proposition 2

An expression can also become a word if it describes an item not belonging to the real world. By definition 3 we have that an expression is the transmission of an idea. However an idea is not limited to what exists in reality. An idea can be the result of the operation of ideas, which are beyond the scope of this treatise, when at least one operand came from the real world. An example: Minotaurus = Human + Bull.

Proposition 3

The quality of our communication with others is never perfect. This is evident by definition five. The quality of the communication is greater when the amount of incongruencies between the original idea and the mirrored version tends to zero.

Proposition 4

If we take Proposition 3 and definition 6 as truthful, the next is also true. The relationship between idea transmitted and idea received is many to many, thus a new entity needs to be created: meaning.

Proposition 5

The level of an expression depends on the amount of human beings that have access to the reference of the meaning of an expression. If it's two people, it remains as an expression. If more than two people have access, we might call it a term. If a large amount of people, e.g. a community, have access to it, we call it a word.

  • There are people here who maintain that if just two people understand a blank-space-bounded string as well as most people understand 'car' say, it's a word. While I wouldn't agree, your fifth proposition is woolly (and implies that 'we' all agree on the exact constitution of the English lexicon). Commented Sep 9, 2015 at 9:11
  • This is an admirable proposal. Unfortunately, I found my response to it was to question the presuppositions and assumptions embedded in it. So, rather than pointing the way toward an answer, it raised more questions. Examples: how is sensory data reflective of reality? Is it at all? What is knowledge? Does somebody asking if X is a word care? Is ideation the form of conscious storage? Does consciousness store anything whatsoever? Is an ideation transmitted by an expression, or merely suggested? And so on, at every turn. Thanks for carefully considering my question and your answer, though.
    – JEL
    Commented Sep 9, 2015 at 20:59

There are many times words "appear" in language yet is not (yet?) supported by the typical "it appears in a dictionary" defense. I believe the question can only truly be answered in a modern world when coupled with it's CONTEXT. In addition, when coupled with an agreed upon usage of a given word, a brand new bouncing baby "Boyiee"!!! is born.

Ok, I amuse no one but myself with that but the concept is true if not in any way quantifiable. In this day and age of social media, it is significantly more argument provoking to suggest that any one person can become the one that tips the proverbial scale from "non-word" to officially a "word". 10 years ago that may have been a worthwhile discussion potentially dabbling into what might have been an interesting brain-tickle for the OP but today's proliferation of communicative method and media surely makes the issue moot. For this post's sake let's say that if anyone is heard saying it on Youtube, Reddit or Snapchat it may be credited as a "word."

In the OP's own quote: For example, the primary definition of 'word, n.' in the OED is "I. Speech, utterance, verbal expression." opens the door to a vast array of interpretations. Take what was previously little more than a noise meaning "I guess it's "OK"...would probably fall under the "Utterance" category and has now been reborn as "meh" in written form. Now who is to say that this is not a 'real word"? It not only conveys meaning but is understood by a number of people to mean a particular thing.

Combine CONTEXT with this idea of COMMON USAGE

So now, I think the OP will be satisfied with what discourse they originally intended to provoke with the "philosophy of language" question. Once context is added to "meh" like a toddler seated alone at a table staring blankly into a plate of tepid broccoli, it is simple minded to argue the validity of the 'realness' of the word. Truly, the idea has been communicated and understood on both the sending and receiving side in the context of "picky-eater" and there is little point in further arguing the matter in hopes that Webster will one day catch up.

And that's all I got to say about that...

  • I'm not even sure about the 'common' bit. I'd say that a word is 'real' when the person using the word can reasonably expect his or her intended audience to understand it in its context, without further explanation.
    – JHCL
    Commented Sep 4, 2015 at 13:34
  • (In other words, it's 'real' or otherwise ONLY at the point of use).
    – JHCL
    Commented Sep 4, 2015 at 13:36
  • @JHCL, that's interesting. So you would say that when you're talking to a baby, none of the words you use are real? The baby (one hopes) learns the words you speak, just as others may learn new words from you and vice versa. I'm fairly sure you would not maintain your distinction in those circumstances, so how would you account for them?
    – JEL
    Commented Sep 4, 2015 at 17:20
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    @JEL Expecting an infant to understand the meaning of more than a smallish subset of simple words would hardly be reasonable. Combining reasonability with intended audience is key. If you’re talking to a lamppost, no words are ‘real’; if you’re talking to someone who left school at 12 and has no interesting in academics or their own language, words like ambisyllabicity and transcendentality are likely not to be ‘real’; and if you’re talking to more or less anyone except a select few, about half of this answer isn’t ‘real’ words. Commented Sep 5, 2015 at 21:28
  • @JanusBahsJacquet, that's also interesting, but I don't think those asking whether a word is "real" on this forum are much concerned with reasonability or audience. Taking the lamppost and the baby as exemplary: if you talk to a lamppost, all your words are real (to you, or you're not talking), whether the lamppost understands them or not; likewise, talking to a baby. In the latter case, however, the words may be in some system of 'realness' more real: this is because (one hopes) the baby will remember them, repeat them, and is already in some sense 'attempting' to understand them.
    – JEL
    Commented Sep 6, 2015 at 6:47

A dictionary word

As opposed to "a made-up word," or "non-dictionary word," the phrase "a real word," means little existentially beyond literally: "a dictionary word," i.e. a word published alphabetically in a dictionary along with its definition(s).


Though it may be perfectly cromulent, the word "cromulent" is not a real word.


"A real word", as in the question 'is X a real word?', or more simply 'is X a word' asks for answers expressing support from a triumvirate of authoritatively determinable conditions:

  1. X must be communicative, which is to say that it must be both expressive and susceptible to interpretation. Usage (for a simple example, as evidenced by material showing usage beneath a dictionary or lexicon headword, but extending to other instances in written material, or instances attested by personal, verbal experience) is considered proof of this. 'Usage' is here intended in a diachronic sense; that is, if usage at any time, past or present can be evidenced, that is also evidence the word is communicative.

  2. X must be conventional, in the sense that it conforms to the linguistic conventions of the language at issue (here English). The proof of this is less satisfying and complete, but generally (for English) the edge cases are clear: a word written in Arabic or Greek characters, for example, or merely transliterated from those languages, is not considered an English word until and unless it has been 'assimilated'.

  3. X must be acceptable, in that it is not deliberately or through ignorance misrepresented as a word. 'Acceptable' is here intended in a synchronic sense; that is, X must be currently acceptable to meet the contraints of this test. Acceptability changes over the course of time, and what one day may be considered acceptable as a word, the next day may not, or vice versa. Thus, if a word is no longer acceptable but was once, or the other way around, pointing that change and its engendering circumstances out is highly relevant when answering the question 'is X a word'. Proof of acceptability is, as with conventionality, more difficult to come by, but can be achieved by citing expert sources that support or deny acceptability and showing how any expert sources that oppose the former must be mistaken.

The 3 conditions are interdependent. Proof of usage is not valid proof that something proposed as a word is a word unless proof of acceptability and conventionality can also be offered (whether such proof is explicit or not).

This answer does not, of course, completely answer the question, and it fails to spell out the relationships of 1-3 and scientific, jargon, cant, slang, nonsense, nonce, spurious, neologistic, et al. terms. Those relationships are, however, inferable. This answer does suggest a legitimate path forward when an answer to a question of the general form 'is X a word' is sought.

The point here is that, when somebody asks a question on this Q&A site that takes the form of 'is X a word', they are asking for an authoritative answer. Answers that account, whether implicitly or explicitly, for the 3 conditions proposed, will be considered authoritative, and can be supported with reference to external authority.


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