Thinking About Thinking

What Makes A Word…A Word?

Posted in Pop Culture by larrycheng on May 29, 2009

After a couple of VC centric posts, I thought I’d end the work week with some lighter fare.  Inspired by last night’s riveting (seriously) National Spelling Bee, I thought there would be no more appropriate time to toss out a random thought I’ve had for quite awhile actually.  The general question is – what makes a word…a word?

For many years, I have heard people in business and otherwise use the word “incent” – obviously related to creating an incentive.  You hear it all the time, “We need to incent the management team to grow sales.”  Interestingly, for many years, I don’t think “incent” was actually a recognized word in any dictionary I could find.  The proper word is “incentivize”.  So, I just held the belief that the business world had adopted a word that doesn’t really exist.  But, as long as we all understood what the word meant, who really cares.

Then a few years ago I ran into a guy with a linguist background, and I ran this issue by him.  His point to me was that a dictionary is static (not entirely if it’s online, but point taken), and language is dynamic.  His further point was that if a community of people uses a word, and “we all understand” what that word means, then that in and of itself qualifies the word as a word – it is legitimate language.  People define language, not dictionaries.

That all made sense to me.  We have seen this play out in other venues right?  Now “ginormous” is a recognized word popularized by kids.  Michael Jackson popularized a new definition for “bad” in the 80’s – “not bad meaning bad but bad meaning good… I’m bad.” The sitcom, Seinfeld, created an entirely new vocabulary – such as “pig-man”: 1) half man, half pig or 2) a short bald mental patient with a pinkish complexion (ex. Elmer Fudd), who tends to grunt or squeal a lot. And of course, proving the prescience of this linguist, if you look in the dictionary now, “incent” is recognized word.

So, this gets me back to the National Spelling Bee.  As I watched a kid who looked tired from studying the dictionary for 14,793 straight hours attempt to spell “palatschinken”, I wondered, who in the world knows what that word means, let alone who uses it?  That got me thinking how many “words” there are that really no one would know exist and no one uses.  If use of a word and common understanding of a word – qualifies a word as a word, then shouldn’t lack of use of a word and lack of common understanding of a word somehow disqualify a word as a word?  Or is language this ever growing spaghetti code that just keeps growing and growing like Jack and the Beanstalk (or the Windows OS)?

Beats me, I don’t know why I waste brain cycles on stuff like this, maybe I’m still scarred from studying for the SAT Verbal.