The word is not a clearly definable linguistic unit. . . . what the word is or is not depends ultimately on our total view of grammar. —Frank Palmer, in Grammar
Language is a configurable space on the order of a continuum, therefore expandible in any as yet unbroached direction. —Golem, the great computer in Stanisław Lem’s Imaginary Magnitude
Irregardless, supposably, ain’t, impactful, unfriend, defriend, guesstimate, disincentivise, mentee, probletunity, orientate, loginned … Do these words make you twitchy? Would you say some of them are not words?
Orientate is probably less reviled, but some people still reject its lexical status. On Not Exactly Rocket Science, a blog at Discover Magazine, writer Ed Yong began a recent post about avian magnetoreception with the following line:
Some birds can sense the Earth’s magnetic field and orientate themselves with the ease of a compass needle.
He goes on to describe how robins ‘orientated themselves’ (simple past tense) under controlled conditions and ‘became disorientated’ (participial adjective) if their right eye was covered. It’s fascinating research, and Yong does an admirable job of explaining the science. But I want to focus on the bizarre and hostile reaction to his use of the word orientate. The second comment to his post is:
‘Orientate’ is not a word.
Just like that. Never mind how birds see magnetic fields – orientate is ‘not a word’. Comment number 8 goes beyond flat dismissal to outright abuse, calling orientate and disorientate ‘simply moronic’. This commenter, who uses the revealing name ‘Jocular Pedant’, elaborates:
Constructing a word with additional unnecessary syllables is ALWAYS awkward, and is never the preferred usage, no matter what country you are from.
This, in case you’re wondering, is rubbish. For example, the trisyllabic burglarize is preferred to the tidy burgle in American English. Orientate, despite being widely censured in AmE, is standard in BrE, has been around since the mid-19thC, and has been used by careful writers for decades.
But history and sense are rarely allowed to interfere with peeving. By comment 17, Ed Yong has had enough:
Robins can literally see magnetic fields with their right eye, and some people are more interested in discussing the usage of orient vs. orientate. This is like standing with one’s back at a sunset in order to stare at one’s shoes.
In his position, I’d have been impatient too. I wouldn’t compare an interest in usage with staring at one’s shoes instead of a sunset, but I don’t think this is quite what he meant: Ed told me by email that he finds linguistics fascinating, and that he’s happy to have errors pointed out – but not to be told he’s wrong when he has used an accepted usage, and when erroneous nitpicking hinders discussion of exciting scientific research.
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. In a rousing rant at Language Log some years ago, linguist Arnold Zwicky emphatically denounced this form of dogma:
I’ve been hearing this ‘not a word’ bullshit since I was a kid, usually applied to non-standard ain’t and taboo fuck . . . . It mystified me then, and it angers me now. It’s (literally) superhyperbolic, two steps of exaggeration beyond reality, and it’s insulting.
If you’re thinking, ‘superhyperbolic isn’t a word’, you’re losing ground. Take a deep breath, then take irregardless. Some people will tell you it’s not a word, but of course it is; it’s just non-standard. A word may be considered awkward, confusing, silly, or likely to discredit its user, but these criticisms warrant reasoned arguments to back them up, not dictatorial denial. I don’t care for irregardless, but I’ll defend its right to be said.
Along similar lines, a more elaborate web page is ‘“Login” is not a verb’. Again, login is not a verb I would use – log in is better formed and less susceptible to problems with conjugation – but absolute pronouncements on what is or isn’t a verb are ill-judged, because every word can potentially be verbed. For a more nuanced and commonsensical look at login, see Mark Liberman’s analysis which is in striking contrast to the peevers’ invective:
I probably wouldn’t use ‘loginned’ or ‘loginning’ myself, but not much in the fate of the world seems to depend on the question of whether these usages catch on or not.
The not-a-verb template is extended here. Readers are introduced to a list of ‘words that are not verbs’, and are invited to ‘pick one of the non-verbs about which this site knows’. I can’t decide whether this phrase is deliberately ungainly or a good example of how people forsake clarity to avoid breaking what they imagine to be important grammatical rules (in this case stranding a preposition). As I’ve shown before, automatic deference to dubious pseudo-rules is associated with substandard prose and a penchant for dogma.
The not-a-word brigade are legion. Browsing the internet, I see countless examples of peeving, pouting and petulant proscribing: ain’t, funnest, mentee, umm, anyways, misremembered, even blog: ‘not a word’. These judgements are sometimes underlined with definitely, obviously and their weasely ilk. Weaselly, if you prefer; both are words!
There’s a Facebook group called Chillax is not a word for a reason (‘Chillax promises to be the new milleniums [sic] most embarrassing invention’), and one called Guesstimate is Not a Word – for ‘the enlightened class of people who realize that there is no middle ground between a guess and an estimate’.
That sudden whiff in the air is not the subtle aroma of enlightenment.
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 how do peevers cope with the Nadsat in A Clockwork Orange, the Newspeak in 1984, or the idiosyncratic hyperinvention of Joyce’s later novels, to name a few well-known literary examples?
Wordnik, by contrast, has ‘all the words’. Type in a clump of letters, be it a valid construction or not, and you’ll arrive at a page for that word. If you enter a made-up word, you’re unlikely to find information on it, and it probably won’t become part of the common lexicon, but who knows. In a casual conversation last night I used the word judgy, meaning judgemental. I’d never used or thought of it before; it just came out mid-sentence and made convenient sense. Turns out, of course, that I was not the first to use it. Whimsical affixation comes naturally to us, and the effects can be morphogasmic.
Neologisms, jargon, and words that shift function (e.g. verbings) attract particular condemnation. New words can seem ugly, pointless, or ridiculous at first, but over time, many have snuck into standard usage. I’m not arguing for the default acceptance of all newcomers, but by tolerating them long enough to assess them without prejudice, we can reorient(ate) ourselves to new linguistic possibilities.
Peevers: criticise pet-hate words if you must, but don’t assume that you’re right and that people who use them are lesser beings. Repressive quibbling over wordhood overlooks the fact that language is fiercely playful and productive, inviting our creativity. Wordnik’s Erin McKean put it succinctly: ‘If it seems wordish, use it.’
* * *
Johnson, the excellent language blog at The Economist, has followed up on this post, noting my ‘defiant evocation of Evelyn Beatrice Hall‘ and explaining that The Economist maintains a strict style guide primarily for consistency and because expressions in new or niche usage might not be understood by a wider audience. This makes sense. Style guides promote internal uniformity that helps reduce both confusion in readers and headaches in editors.
Johnson finds that I ‘[skate] over the fact that such debates are most often just a proxy for ad hominem attacks’; that ‘when people criticise non-words, it’s usually just a lazy way to criticise their users’. Fair point, though I don’t know if I agree with the ‘usually’ bit. Dubious usage advice can spring from laziness, triumphalism, social anxiety and snobbery, automatic deference to tradition, and so forth. Some of that applies to the not-a-word crew too.
Ben Zimmer has also adapted my phrase for a post at Language Log: ‘”Not a verb” is not an argument.’
Update, Feb. 2013:
Revisiting this post a few years later, I find a lot of it holds up but I think I erred on the side of leniency. So I’ve written a little more on the topic, in ‘Not a word’ prolly ain’t an argument anyways:
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.