Is that a Word?

by Aug 28, 2012Linguistics9 comments

I recently ran across an article in which someone wrote something like the following:

For all you Googlers (is that a word?), there’s an easy way to find the restaurant’s website.

“Is that a word?”—this is a common question. It’s not a question expecting an answer, I think, so much as it is a rhetorical device indicating to the reader that the writer doesn’t remember hearing others use that particular set of syllables in that way!

But let me take a stab at answering anyway. “Googler” is a word. “Googler” is a transparent compound made of two readily recognizable parts, a noun and an affix. “Google” + “-er” = someone who Googles. I’m not sure on what consistent linguistic basis someone could deny that “word” status. More basically, if you just used a certain locution and you have a reasonable expectation that others will understand it, it’s a word. What else is a word but that?

Does presence in a dictionary make something a word? Well, aren’t there a great number of words in the dictionary that you and your friends don’t know and never use? What makes them words more than “Googler”? Did “blog” not count as a word till the first dictionary came out that included it?

Or does utterance by the literati make something a word? Well, if they all successfully avoided “ain’t” for a generation (I doubt they could), would that finally revoke its much-challenged membership in the “word” club? I don’t think so. Who says that only educated people get to determine what counts as a word? If a manual laborer with an 8th grade education uses a certain set of syllables (like “ain’t” or even “git ‘r’ dun”) all the time, and if others understand him perfectly, who are we to say he’s momentarily dropping out of English and speaking something else?

In my experience, the charge, “That’s not a word!” is more often a way of flaunting one’s intellectual superiority over someone else. Ironically, however, it’s usually (in my experience) based on ignorance of the way words actually work.

If I know my John McWhorter, he’d say that “word” and “language” each exist on a continuum. What’s the line separating a dialect of Russian from a wholly separate language? There is none. We make our best determination based on a number of sometimes arbitrary factors—like what the speakers themselves think of their language. And what’s the line separating a “word” from a malapropism or a collection of nonsense syllables? There’s no line. There’s a spectrum.

If you say something and people understand you, you used words.

Wikipedia has a good little article on words.

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  1. Parallax Perspective

    Yeah, “If you say something and people understand you, you used words.” But that doesn’t mean you used the proper term. Companies actually have trademark problems when their names become common usage. For instance, Fridge[idare] and Dumpster are both technically proper nouns. Corporations will often take out newspaper adds to combat improper usage.

  2. Don Johnson

    Hmmph! Not necessarily!

    Is ‘Hmmph’ a word?

  3. David

    On another note, a “Googler” typically means a Google employee, not someone who does Google searches. That’s the way it’s used in the media and at Google, and we all know that usage determines meaning.

  4. Mark L Ward Jr

    Parallax, Frigidaire will almost certainly never succeed in getting normal people to stop using what are now normal English words, and Kleenex, Frisbee, and other trademarks that are common nouns won’t be dislodged, either. Their respective owners have to try to succeed, or else they could lose their trademarks in court—and then others could make money off their success. But that’s a legal issue, not a linguistic one.

    Indeed, you have to ask yourself what you mean by “proper.” I’d say that me calling my Discraft Ultrastar a “frisbee,” if legally improper, is morally proper and practically unavoidable. If your audience will tsk-tsk you for making a supposed error, then don’t say “frisbee.” But in my experience most people will be blissfully unaware and will continue using the best word at hand. More power to them.

    “Fridge” also reveals an interesting feature of language: the true etymology of a term may be obscured in the popular consciousness—people don’t typically know where their words came from (I borrow this point from Moises Silva). Honestly, I never perceived “fridge” as having a relationship to Frigidaire—and even the venerable OED, though mentioning that possibility, does not make it determinative. My hunch is that most people would feel as I do that it’s a shortened form of “refrigerator.” It’s a little presumptuous, then, for Frigidaire to tell people not to use the word!

    Dave, context limits the range of possible meanings. I didn’t supply much context, however, so maybe it wasn’t enough to show that “Googler” was meant generically.

  5. Wesley

    Although I consider this horse to have been beaten into oblivion a long time ago, allow me to join the conversation. While Mark always seems to impugn the motives of those more rigid linguists, I would like to suggest that there is more to the social contract of communication that Dr. Ward is allowing.

    My question is, “Why does *the expectation of understanding* make my particular locution a ‘word’?” That puts all the authority on the hearer and allows him at any time to claim (for whatever reason he might have) that I have not communicated. It would also imply that if I were to speak an unknown language to someone, I wouldn’t be saying words??

    On the flip side, it also allows that if a friend and I work up a little code and shout suffixes and numbers at each other, then we’re using words – after all, we understand each other.

    No, I think there is a simpler way to look at words – morphemes about which *the community* has agreed upon a meaning. When people ask, “Is that a word?” They are asking if a community (or their community most probably) has agreed upon the meaning of the morpheme their using. Or perhaps they are introducing the morpheme and asking people to agree with them about the intended meaning. When a community has agreed upon a meaning or a set of meanings, they usually write it down in a book so that everyone knows what the agreement was. That’s why people get upset when a word is hijacked -“Hey! You’re breaking the agreement. We all decided that morpheme meant X!”

    Of course, language is organic and we certainly change morphemes and craft new ones. But we cannot get away from the fact that words are based on agreements and the question, “Is that a word?” is a plea for agreement.

  6. Mark L Ward Jr

    Good show, Wesley! I only impugn the rigid linguists’ motives because they rarely seem to recognize the very truth at the heart of your comment: what community are we talking about when we try to establish the confines of the “community agreement”? Whose community rules the roost? I really like your fattest paragraph, the one making that point. I actually agree that people shouldn’t break the agreement.

    But I don’t think anyone ever does. At least no purposefully. And if they are purposeful, they won’t be successful. You can’t make other people pick up your code. It’s all accidental (well, ultimately, providential).

    The agreement gets broken when a bunch of people who are just trying to communicate and are totally unaware of the “community agreement” that gave them language (and that’s most people!) start to use a word they’ve picked up who knows where. Before you know it, even the educated people—who have been initiated into the community establishing the reigning agreements—are using the once “lower-class” locution. Language has the unstoppable force and the slow, grinding movement of a glacier. And even if all the English professors in the world stand in front of the ice and yell, “HALT!” it will do no good. They will succumb. And if not them, their children.

    Your argument about the expectation of understanding assumes that people ever think self-consciously enough about their language that they purposefully give it meanings others won’t understand. But if they’re doing that, they’re more likely being deceitful than anything else. That’s not a language problem but a moral one. Most people most of the time want to be understood. If they want to be misunderstood, they will do so not through changing word meanings somehow but through forming misleading sentences.

    I think we should think self-consciously about language, using an insight you employ: different locutions may be appropriate for different communities and/or circumstances. What I don’t like is the tendency of the elites to deny that other communities’ way of speaking counts as real English!

  7. Wesley

    If I may disagree, I would say that people are most certainly aware of the “community agreement. They have been informed about it from their earliest days. Every time they point at the truck and say, “dog?” their mother shakes her head and says, “truck.” And in our American context, they even go to schools where they are introduced to written copies of the agreement, the OED, which while imperfect, is very helpful in describing the agreement. So they are aware of it even if they don’t think about it as such.

    The agreement is broken, not through activity but through laziness. As you said, people don’t sit down and consciously decide to break the agreement. But by failing to own the tradition they inherit, they inevitably misuse and violate it. And that is a loss. There was a unity, an understanding that was lost. And I think it is understandable that people are hurt and upset by that. They have lost something they wanted for themselves or the next generation.

    I’m not saying that the lazy person does not communicate, but I am saying that he is not adhering to the social contract that he received. And if he has not at least made the concerted effort to adhere to the agreement, on what basis can it be said that he is speaking English? But if he does make the claim to speak the pre-existing agreement called “English” why should he not be required to make the effort to actually adhere to the agreement?

  8. Mark L Ward Jr

    Okay, I’m following you… And I’m not sure I can object to your version of the tacit contract. But I’d ask two things:

    1. Can you give an example of what you’re talking about?

    2. Does everybody who speaks English in America (let’s just limit it to American English for this question) have to agree to the same contract? IOW, Are people of different classes or regions (or ages!) allowed to have different contracts?