A trio of tweets to introduce the topic:
The "not a word" claim usually means it's a word outside standard English—which may be trivially true—or a neologism the speaker dislikes.—
Stan Carey (@StanCarey) October 22, 2013
The only words that aren't "real words" are the ones that haven't been written, spoken or thought. When that happens they become "real".—
Stan Carey (@StanCarey) October 22, 2013
My question about dictionaries was paired with this snapshot of the @nixicon Twitter account, about which more below:
Of course, madder is neither a neologism nor a word of questionable status: the complaints about it are therefore all the more strange. (Stranger, if you want to risk it.) Given how accessible dictionaries are, people can be impressively quick to label something as “not a [real] word”. I recently saw an editor asserting that disorientating was not a word, and urging upper-case shame on whoever thought it was.
Pro tip: if you see or hear a short, continuous string of letters or sounds more than once, and you know what it means and how it’s used, chances are it’s real. As Jonathon Owen wrote, “words get their wordhood not from etymology or logic or some cultural institution granting them official status, but by convention.”
A few years ago, in a hastily written polemic called ‘Not a word’ is not an argument, I think I erred on the side of leniency. Typos can become real words, as teh and pwn did, but more usually production errors are too infrequent to become even quasi-normal. A string like, say, errorw is not a proper word, and whether it’s “real” is a semantic/ontological side-issue. Qkrghrbgyw is not a word and is unlikely ever to be.
But I stand by much of the post, chiefly the rejection of not-a-word claims made simply because someone doesn’t like a word or because it’s not suited to formal English, such as irregardless or ain’t:
If you see or hear someone reject a word by saying it’s “not a word”, you can reasonably assume that they mean it’s not a word they like, not a word they would use, not a word in standard usage, not a word in a certain dictionary, not a suitable word for the context, and so on. There’s a difference, and it matters. . . .
Word aversion and word hatred are an aesthetic indulgence; word denial is a different beast. Why the cranky resolve to outlaw disliked words? From what imaginary realm do people conjure the authority to decide what’s acceptable?
And boy, do they conjure it. My first tweet above mentions @nixicon, a Twitter account James Callan created to share not-a-word claims and musings he finds on Twitter. It offers an insight into what words people commonly reject and the manner in which they do so, or in which they react if it’s a third-party claim, such as a teacher’s.
They’re sometimes right and often wrong. Many non-standard words recur, such as ain’t, irregardless, alot, funner, finna, mines, K, anyways, bae, prolly, and conversate. Some cluster around events (Xmas) or current affairs (Obama’s use of madder). Popular misspellings abound, as do neologisms and slangy inflections and derivations.
The tone of “not a word” tweets may be amused, bemused, irritated, enraged, disappointed, surprised, scornful, triumphant, neutral. As an unofficial sociolinguistic survey it makes for interesting browsing:
funtastic isn't a word so I need to stop using it—
☼ emily ☼ (@Emily_McAlister) January 21, 2014
Dear National and International Media, "Belieber" is not a word. Stop it.
Chris Noseworthy (@ChrisNoseworthy) January 30, 2014
How many times do I have to say, "K" isn't a word. Nor is it a vowel so you can't use it by itself. Lesson, over.—
Brandon (@BranPhelps) January 16, 2014
There's actually no way Shakespeare was sober while writing these plays…."ado" is not a real word.—
Niki Freed (@nikiifreed) December 06, 2013
hunnid is definitely my favourite word that isn't actually a word—
drewc (@meDrewC) January 30, 2014
Mines is not a word holy shit guys what do they teach you in public school—
Jillian Kamakaila (@kamapaulino) January 20, 2014
Wait so "dunno" isn't a real word? Because I don't think I've ever actually said "don't know"—
Gina✨ (@gina_belle16) December 28, 2013
There are hundreds (hunnids!), even thousands of tweets like this. Many of them show how readily people defer to any hint of authority, from hunches and hearsay to abridged dictionary apps, or how naturally they assume that pseudo-authority for themselves.
On the Nixicon Tumblr blog, James explains its origin and that of the word itself: a portmanteau of nix (‘no’) and lexicon. He mentions a potential not-a-word taxonomy, which I’d like to see. If you’re on Twitter, interested in attitudes to usage, and don’t mind bad language, it’s worth a follow. You can find me there too.
In the meantime, I recommend default scepticism of claims that a given word is “not a word”. There are more words in prose and speech than are licensed in our lexicons.