From Geoffrey Hunter's Metalogic, p.5:

... a thing is an English word only if it has meaning.

It got me thinking: is this really so? Is it possible for there to be an English word that is absolutely void of meaning, i.e. meaningless?

Can I not come up with a word on my own, and not give it any meaning whatsoever? Do made-up words enter the "gates of English" if and only if they have meaning?

P.S. I don't know if this question is more suitable for Linguistics.SE (or, perhaps, Philosophy.SE under the 'philosophy_of_language' tag?), since I am interested in an answer for natural languages in general as well. I have focused on English probably because the book I'm reading is in English, the statement was made by a native speaker of English, and English is the language I am most familiar with.

  • Can you show us a couple of more sentences before and after the quote? I don't think it is a question related with English Language and Usage. It rather reads like a request for interpretation.
    – user140086
    Jul 7, 2016 at 14:51
  • 3
    Pay no attention. This is a philosopher speculating about language without any clear idea of how it works. Clearly he subscribes to the Conduit Metaphor and doesn't distinguish language from thought; English words don't "have meaning", to begin with. And many English words -- for instance the and a -- cannot be said to "have" any meaning at all. Jul 7, 2016 at 14:58
  • John Lawler nailed it as usual. I am grateful for his participation. Jul 7, 2016 at 15:15
  • Let's think about acronyms. Is there really a difference between NASA and SANA (an acronym I just invented but which is probably used for something, somewhere)? Can we say that one is a word and the other isn't? That seems illogical to me. Jul 27, 2016 at 14:56

2 Answers 2


Do made-up words enter the "gates of English" if and only if they have meaning?


Nonsense words exist, put to good effect in Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”:

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.


They are words, but they mean nothing. And the sum of them make a delightful nonsense poem.

Furthermore, in linguistics, there are many words that linguists deem mean nothing.

  • 2
    Thank you for taking your time writing this wonderful answer! Jul 7, 2016 at 16:41
  • One could argue that they do have meaning, but that it's very subjective: in other words, many readers will invent their own meaning for "brillig" or "slithy" on reading, in order to create a mental picture. Perhaps they would imagine that "slithy" has a meaning similar to "slimy", or "slithering", for example. Jul 27, 2016 at 14:53
  • @MaxWilliams in the case of this poem, every reader's vague attached "meaning" formed via extremely vague mental images can hardly be called meaning. Jul 27, 2016 at 15:00
  • @MichaelSmith this is probably getting too philosophical, but I disagree. all meaning is subjective. The world only exists for us inside our minds, as a perception. We can talk about objective reality for convenience sake, but it's all subjective really. A word can mean different things to different people. Who are you to say that someone's perception isn't valid? Jul 27, 2016 at 15:09
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    @MaxWilliams I would argue that the meaning of, say (among the other words Lewis came up with), brillig is entirely under control of the person who came up with the word, i.e., Lewis Carroll. If he didn't impose any sort of meaning on this word (and I am pretty positive that this is so), then the word really does not have any meaning. This whole discussion at this point brings us back to my original question: is coming up with a word and not attaching any meaning to it make it a legitimate word of the English language? So we're back where we started. Jul 27, 2016 at 15:27

Every word at some point had no meaning until the persons who used it gave it meaning. For example "on fleek" was an expression that took over the internet a few years ago and had no meaning until the word was validated by millions of people. This is how language is created.

  • 1
    You will want to cite the sources for the information supplied. Otherwise there is nothing but opinion..
    – J. Taylor
    Jan 22, 2018 at 19:31
  • I'd never heard of 'on fleek'. Googled, it has a presence; but I would not say that it has caught on.
    – Nigel J
    Jan 22, 2018 at 22:02

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