The Real Word


Blathering recently, I stumbled across a point, which I've picked up polished and humbly submit to you. I was playing boggle and the question came up, as it so often does, if a word played was a 'real' word. Which begs the question what is a real word and who's the authority on its authenticity? For our purposes and the purposes of our modern age the dictionary defines which words are official and which are not. But it has not always been so, it is not always so, and the world of words is at a turning point.

Pre-dictionary, words were made authentic by consensus. If two people agreed on the meaning of a word it was 'real'. Families, countries, and even blacksmiths each had their own unique sets of words loosely connected by an organic flow of spellings and pronunciations. But this egalitarian utopia was shattered with the formalization of the standard dictionary made common by the printing press.

You see, the dictionary acts a sort of fence around language, words which are included are official. Because the print dictionary is limited by page count, it has to weed out a number of would-be-words. After the dictionary's historic standardization the words included inhabited a kingdom of legitimacy and those which weren't found themselves beyond the pale. However, these disenfranchised words remain influential. Vocation specific jargon and all manner of regional or technologically enabled slang moves outside the comfy confines of the dictionary. Occasionally, these barbaric words become so prominent that they invade the kingdom of the dictionary and establish themselves with the legitimacy of their privileged brethren.

However, the times are a changing. The Internet has given birth to the e-dictionary which is a modern wonder compared to the soon-to-be-archaic print dictionary. An e-dictionary has little space restriction and is free to define a myriad of words even if their use is extraordinarily obscure. As this e-dictionary replaces its traditional counterpart the lingo-fence will come to enclose a much wider pasture.

So what of the future in this newly expanded kingdom of language? It's hard to say exactly, but I might project one guess. E-dictionaries could readily include usage statistics: who uses the word in what context and how often. And so the question of legitimacy might not be a simple matter of inclusion or exclusion from the kingdom of the dictionary. Legitimacy might return to its egalitarian roots, decided by consensus. I hope this plays out. I like my language fluid and expanding. Still, I won't give you points for 'brb' in Boggle.

3 comments:

E said...

I was going to write up some formal response but I think I'll just leave it at this:

1. You may find http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/ interesting.

2. Here's a good example of why I think people ought to know more about their own language and its official uses: "to beg the question" means to make an argument for X that already assumes X as a basic principle. I don't THINK that's how you meant to use it in your post, but I'm not sure. I can't really say what your meaning was because a) the formal meaning of the phrase does not seem to fit with the rest of that paragraph, b) if you're not using the formal meaning I don't know what the hell you intended, and c) I'm either a pretentious asshole for assuming you don't know the real meaning here OR I'm a pretentious asshole for thinking that one ought to use the formal meaning of a word or phrase always, to prevent confusion. The net effect is confusion for me and a Catch-22 all around. Also, your meaning got lost.

So rail against me all you like for sticking to my formal usage guns, but here we see that meaning was lost, anxiety was created (on a low level, but still), and confusion ruled the day.

Benjamin Mcgee Haley said...

Good point on the legitimate meaning of 'begs the question'. Here's how my use is justified: The question of the reality of a word is rhetorical. It is an accusation, "that's not a real word". The resolution is assumed to be a dictionary. And that implied assumption is what 'begs the question'.

However, your point is well taken that I was less than clear to the reader. I required that the essay be treated with a forgiving eye, and I did not anticipate the scrutiny of an unforgiving E.

Thanks.

Christopher said...

http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/erin_mckean_redefines_the_dictionary.html

- Chris