What makes a word 'real'?


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We use a big variety of words every day in our lives, and means of communication are changing all the time. We speak and write through phones, Whatsapp, e-mails, (sometimes bad quality) video conversations and actual speaking with people who are physically present. In general we can make ourselves clear, but for many reasons we maintain ‘official’ consensus through language associations, universities etc. But what makes a word ‘officially recognized’? Just by appearing in the dictionary?

On the other hand, you know the meaning of words or expressions, which do not appear in any dictionary (yet) and probably use them in conversation with friends, but they are not ‘official’ words. There is a discrepancy between ‘official’ language and used language, of which the latter is more ‘real’ because language derives its existence from usage, while the former is static and artificial. Yet we call the static language ‘official’ or ‘real’.

Anna Curzan in a video on www.TED.com. speaks about: ‘what makes a word real?’, and suggests that when people refer to words as ‘real’, what they would normally mean is that it appears in the dictionary. It’s absolutely true when she says that the phrase: ‘look it up in the dictionary’, in general is the same as ‘consult the authority’. But mostly we don’t really distinguish between dictionaries, while obviously there are differences between them. And who actually write dictionaries? They didn’t magically appear to help us. Even though on some level we are aware that behind a dictionary there are human hands at work, and that some editor gave final ‘green light’ for printing, however, we take a dictionary as an authority; even for scientific papers people mention their sources, but seldom do they mention which dictionary they used. Most linguists often make use of dictionaries during their entire career, but very little of them critically look at them.


So who write dictionaries? Lexicographers study the usage of words. They try to predict which words will be kept on being used and which will be temporal. They have to do their best to keep up with language and how it is used; editors are scouting for new words in newspapers, magazines, books and articles, or new usages of words all the time, which is an endless task. Apart from registering new words and slang, they also have to decide if a word is important and if people will keep on using it, to decide if it has to be included in the following edition. It is a kind of horse-betting to predict how people will be using language, plus a never ending investigation of the daily use of language.

General dictionaries have to be updated all the time and are quickly outdated, since language is so dynamic, especially in these times with increasingly rapid technological advances and mixing of cultures. Since people’s lives and culture change all the time, dictionaries can never be timeless. Every hype, fashion, political movement and new invention brings along new language and use. One year people are planking: ¨an activity consisting of lying face down—sometimes in an unusual or incongruous location.¨, and the next year people are balconing: ¨ an activity that involves jumping from a balcony towards a swimming pool¨. You just can’t keep up with the things people come up with, and the year after it’s already so passé or last summer! We also can’t keep them all in the dictionary for if it turn up again or for those who keep on planking through the years.

Lexicographers have to make a choice every year to select the words that get dropped out of the dictionary. This is of course in contrast to the historical Oxford English Dictionary; a tome with all words known to have been used in English, growing every year since 1911. In the last years, words like brabble, cassette player, aerodome and millennium bug are some examples of those that disappeared. Every year there is a new selection of words to be left out and others to enter the dictionary. Sometimes you’ll even see that new words that enter have the same or a similar meaning as other words that have been taken out years before.

Of course the Internet has caused a lot of change due to abbreviations in short text messages. Technological development and scientific investigation always require new words. They go hand in hand with linguistics to formulate and present. You can imagine that words like ‘app’ suddenly make a boom. If you see how much the word ‘app’ appears in the Internet now; few words can grow in usage as much as new technology. Strange Internet slang is now part of the dictionary, like LOL (Laughing Out Loud), ROFL (Rolling Over the Floor Laughing), LMAO (Laughing My Ass Off). But also abbreviations like 4u, cu2night appear in ‘urban dictionaries’. Words for old technology we aren’t using anymore disappear; some words will stick around and many will be forgotten and never used again. No dictionary is a final arbiter or definite authority.

Words that change meaning

Through time, words can change meaning in use. Some examples are very surprising. For example: nice. This word comes from the Latin nescire – not know or nescius – ignorant, and through old French came in the English language where it first meant ‘stupid, foolish, silly’. Now centuries later somehow we radically changed it and we’re throwing the word at each other as a compliment!

Then opposite, the word silly comes from the West Germanic seely – luck, happiness and has gradually changed via meaning ‘feeble’, then ‘ignorant’ and now is just ‘foolish’.

Other honourable mentions are awful, which came from ‘awe ful’: full of awe, while nowadays it would be ‘disgusting, terrible, nasty’ etc, but also naughty; coming from naught which means ¨nothing¨, but gradually changed to meaning ‘mischief’. A Clue or Clew was a ball of yarn, and in Dutch they still use the word ‘kluwe’ with that meaning. And if you don’t have a clue as to how this changed to its current meaning, think about Greek mythology with mazes and Minotaurs, where the ball of yarn was used to find the exit again. The word ‘unlike’ (1761) is in the OED and meant ‘ceasing to like’, and has been out of general dictionary. However, now with Facebook, you can ‘like’ something and when you take your ‘like’ away, you ‘unlike it’. So 250 years afterwards, the word came back in the dictionary through Facebook.

Angus Stevenson also mentions a nice one his blog:.

Cougar: ¨ now no longer their ‘large American feline quadruped’ but now also ‘an older woman seeking a sexual relationship with a younger man’.¨

Word of the year

In many countries, organizations which are occupied with ‘keeping up with language’ choose important, popular, funny or ugly words in the public sphere by votes every year. In the US the American Dialect Society, each year has an assembly where about 200-300 people vote for words of the year in various categories (with a recent winner worth mentioning):

Most useful (humblebag: expression of false humility, especially by celebrities on Twitter) Most creative (catfish: to misrepresent oneself online, especially as part of a romantic deception. Most unnecessary (bi-winning: term used by Charlie Sheen to describe himself pridefully, dismissing accusations of being bipolar) Most outrageous (assholocracy:rule by obnoxious multi-millionaires) Most euphemistic (least untruthful:involving the smallest necessary lie, used by intelligence director James Clapper) Most likely to succeed (cloud: online space for the large-scale processing and storage of data) Least likely to succeed (brony: an adult male fan of the “My Little Poly” cartoon franchise) Apart from this they have some special categories. In general the attendees are independent linguists, including some of the most outstanding linguists. It is the oldest organization for this practice and also the only one that doesn’t have ties with commercial interest.

In the UK, several dictionaries publish ‘the word of the year’ annually. We’ll sum up some funny oversights of words of the year of several dictionaries, see if you know all their meanings:

  • Australian English dictionary Macquarie:

    • Committee’s Choice People’s Choice

    • 2013 Infovore Onesie

    • 2012 Phantom vibration syndrome First World Problem

    • 2011 Burgini fracking

    • 2010 Googleganger shockumentary

  • Marriam Webster:

    • 2014: culture

    • 2013: science

    • 2012: socialism and capitalism

    • 2011: pragmatic

  • Oxford:

    • 2014: Vape

    • 2013: Selfie

    • 2012: Omnishambles

    • 2011: Squeezed middle

Use of language

If you think of it, of course the only real authority is usage, even though for reasons of politeness and to avoid misunderstandings we try to keep up with usage and mould it in to rules and registers. People successfully communicate and bring over correct meaning through language all the time. There is little you can do about controlling how people use their language, especially informal. Dictionaries and language institutes are doing their best of catching up with how people are speaking at the time, which is probably a never-ending job, since language.

Surely you must have heard people complaining about ugly or crude new words, mistreating of words by wrong usage or the incorporation of foreign words in usage while your own lacks word for it or it is simply not being used. These latter loanwords you will find in many languages, especially in countries with a lot of immigration, when aspects from different cultures, e.g. their stories myths but also foods and plants are brought over.

So even if you don’t like the changes in language, bear in mind that it’s largely out of our control. Anna Curzan in her video advises that we should be reluctant in being worried and wait with complaining. Language is not changing faster than that we can keep up with. Better change your attitude and look at it as fun and interesting. All this change is keeping our language robust. Words get in the dictionary because we use them and we keep on using them. Criticizing this more than anything is about attitude. Do you want to go on with use of old words do so, but you can’t stop the world changing!