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.

21 Responses

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  1. Jules said, on May 29, 2009 at 10:41 am

    I loved this post, especially your insight about how disuse of a word might be grounds for disqualification of a word. Of course it is a ridiculous idea…who would DECIDE that a word is not well-understood? Imagine if we did it statistically and left it to majority vote or some such metric? Our language would rapidly deteriorate.

    I am still scarred by my own Spelling Bee competitor days. I only got to States in Michigan, but even still, you cannot imagine the amount of work it takes to prepare. In my case it was just my mom and I drilling together–not nearly as rigorously as the kids in Spellbound. When I saw that, I realized that what I thought was really hard work was a walk in the park.

  2. larrycheng said, on May 29, 2009 at 11:42 am

    Great point Jules. Yeah, who would really decide? I didn’t know you were such an accomplished spelling bee competitor, though not a surprise. I didn’t even make it out of my own school’s spelling bee.

  3. YourDaddy said, on May 29, 2009 at 5:46 pm

    I remember my uncle’s best friend in Taiwan memorized the entire English-Chinese dictionary. The funny thing is that this guy can’t pronounce a word of English properly. Can you believe that?

  4. slingster said, on May 29, 2009 at 10:24 pm

    In a certain way, grammatical rules and commonly agreed upon word definitions are neccesary for communication. Its a flux, and words always enter and leave a language. But the majority of words take a long time to change and can keep the same meaning for centuries. In the case of “incent” the majority of the population, from 6th grade forward, know its as wrong as “ain’t”. I suggest your VC friends go back to grammar school so they can talk intellegently with a 10th grader cause their is no excuse for getting the word “incentive” wrong.

    Regarding small groups, if you isolate them from the main population for a couple hundred years, you may get an entire new language. But I don’t think VCs are that isolated from the general population.

    What I suspect is really going on here is that those VC are actually mispronouncing the word “incest” as in “forget about the brialliance of the idea, cause I will only fund a start up with people that look, smell, act, and taste like me —people like my sister!”.

    In an evolutionary sense, incest pretty much means your genes won’t be around for long. In the VC sense, incest means piss poor return on investment. Its time that VCs recognize that a brilliant idea is the paramount factor and that it can come the mind of someone born into a Brazilian slum with no education as easily as from a middle class suburb in the states. The brilliance of the idea or invention is the hardest thing to find and the most integral to success. Their is an unlimited supply of good and competent management, but they always need direction which is what a brilliant idea provides. You can’t manage your way out of a shitty idea no matter how much $ you throw at it and how many elite MBAs you have on the team. The last 10 years of VC returns has seemingly proven this. On the other hand, if the idea is great and the founding management turns out to suck, they can be replaced and the company still has a chance of success. Using game theory to analyze this market backs this up.

  5. Ravi Doumas said, on May 30, 2009 at 10:40 pm

    Hi Larry,

    I find this post very interesting and thought-provoking. I found myself thinking about the usage-driving-the-acceptance-driving the adoption theory…I wonder, at which point do you delineate between accepting the colloquial usage and just propagating bad grammar? Does popularity of usage then force the evolution of words and/or overcome etymological correctness?

    I think of the aforementioned debates when I hear the words “efforting,” “conversate.” and “irregardless.” Those words drive me nuts…or maybe I’m the one who has to loosen up?


    • larrycheng said, on May 31, 2009 at 11:12 pm

      It’s interesting what posts people like Ravi. I’m glad you liked it. Your point is interesting – if enough people said “I’m doing good” v. “I’m doing well”, does it somehow become ok to say either? Are there any rules when people decide by popularization?

  6. Tan A K said, on May 31, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    I have posted an extremely long one on your rich-poor disparity post so I’ll make this quick. 🙂

    I have actually thought about the same thing or at least how words came about, like why do we call a chair, a chair? Why not call it something else? While it might be a topic for etymology, I suppose (and this is probably a ridiculous theory) many of the words we use now came about because someone at one point in time decided to utter a completely new, insensible, perhaps even ridiculously-sounding… word to describe something and through constant use became part of the vernacular. (Actually, could there be any other theory as to how words began to exist?)

    I’d agree. It is down to its use and whether there is a group big enough to understand what it means. Even within my circle of friends, there are some English words we decided to play with, which although they sound ridiculous, have become acceptable simply because we understand what they mean. It is only a matter of which one passes as formal and which one is informal (it should be apparent that the conversion of one from informal to formal, or the mere creation of a formal word is a tough, tough task and would require significant amount of time).

    On your idea of disqualifying words for lack of usage etc.: I wouldn’t see the necessity of formally disqualifying them. After all, I’d like to think that it is easier for people to begin using a new word than stopping using an old one. While one word may seem old and useless (and thus a candidate for qualification), there is perhaps a group that still prefers to use them. Precisely why even colloquial words are still being used. Old, but still useful (for some). So yes, I suppose you are right. It is one spaghetti code. We can only add to the already… ginormous collection we have. Why waste the time and effort disqualifying them if we can just let them fade into everyone’s oblivion?

    Hmm… a post that’s not so quick again. lol

    • Tan A K said, on May 31, 2009 at 4:06 pm

      I intended to put my name in that previous post, but yet again forgot.

      It’s Adriaan. And another Cheng (well my mother’s maiden was Cheng).

    • larrycheng said, on May 31, 2009 at 11:14 pm

      Adriaan – thanks for your two very thoughtful comments! I referred to use as Tan in my prior response, sorry about that. It sounds like we’re destined for spaghetti code – which means that spelling bee’s will be here for centuries to come!

      • Tan A K said, on June 1, 2009 at 1:12 am

        At least that’s another thing for kids to compete on to be a tad more competent. We’re for education and development, aren’t we?

        And another thing for every adult to watch on TV and enjoy – even Ryan Seacrest followed the National Spelling Bee. lol

  7. slingster said, on May 31, 2009 at 10:35 pm

    Gentlemen, everyone knows that a dictionary will list many meainging for same word. The evolution of word meaning is a never ending process…

    This is why science nomenclature uses dead languages like latin –they are dead and thus there is no more evolution of meaining…


  8. Luke G said, on June 1, 2009 at 12:11 pm

    I actually used incentivize for quite some time (including in pitches) thinking that is was grammatically incorrect but knowing it would be understood, and was halfway proud when I found “incent,” which I thought was the correct usage.


  9. h ryu said, on June 5, 2009 at 1:22 am

    Hey Larry,
    So upstairs at work sits Jesse Sheidlower who’s an Editor-at-large of the Oxford English Dictionary. Anyway, last year we trudged up to interview him for a book I was working on, and a lot of the stuff he mentioned was pretty fascinating (I thought!). One thing I remember him saying was that the OED will add an average of 1,000 words per year but once it’s in, it’s in! The Dictionary will never delete a word, not because it’s no longer being used but because the Dictionary is a historical record of language and how people speak/spoke. So even if in 10 years no one knows “palatschinken” and the word becomes obsolete, someone at some point in time did and that’s why it’s in there. I think this–the idea that the dictionary is a record, almost a diary, if you like, of words and their usage–had never occurred to me, but it makes sense if you (rightly) believe that people define language, not dictionaries.

    • larrycheng said, on June 5, 2009 at 6:57 am

      Hey Hannah – great comment. That’s fascinating. So, once it’s in it’s in huh? I wonder what the decision making process is to get a word in the dictionary and what the thresholds are if it goes in forever. Must be a high bar!

  10. ping crosby said, on October 21, 2009 at 11:24 pm

    like you said, there are lots of words out there that people don’t know/don’t use/never heard.

    for example. instead of making ‘incent’ a word – how about using a word that already exists? like goad. it’s a good word.

    • Azz said, on July 25, 2010 at 11:54 am

      ‘Goad’ really doesn’t work here — that’s (quite literally) the stick, and the incentive is the carrot.

  11. Patrick said, on January 8, 2011 at 6:02 pm

    Internet security verifications sometimes ask you to type in a “word”, or sometimes two “words” separated by a space, that they show on the screen. But the string of letters that they have on the screen are not actually “words”. ( Examples I recently encountered while purchasing tickets online: farribli untatta Are they trying to change the definition of “word”. Are they implying that any string of letters together can be called a word?? hmmmm as the linquist said dynamic not static. Michael Jackson changed bad to mean good. I guess these sites can try to change the meaning of word to mean any combination of letters. Something to think about….

  12. Patrick said, on January 8, 2011 at 6:06 pm

    Internet security verifications sometimes ask you to type in a “word”, or sometimes two “words” separated by a space, that they show on the screen. But the string of letters that they have on the screen are not actually “words”. (Examples I recently encountered while purchasing tickets online: farribli untatta) Are they trying to change the definition of “word”. Are they implying that any string of letters together can be called a word?? hmmmm as the linquist said dynamic not static. Michael Jackson changed bad to mean good. I guess these sites can try to change the meaning of word to mean any combination of letters. Something to think about….

  13. Dee said, on June 6, 2011 at 8:04 pm

    So if a word becomes a word because a significant number of people no what it means, and thus can be used for normal conversation, is anything that fits that criteria a word.
    E.g. TV, BBQ, E.g. TNT, C4, DVD. Yes these are all abbreviations or Acronyms, but why would they not be words. Telly would be called a word but TV is probably used far more often and is just as recognizable. TNT and C4, most people would know they are explosives, but few would know there true names. DVD is an acronym, but what it was an acronym for changed when it was used for more than video. Hence the acronym was more important than what it was for.

    Why are these not “words”? I don’t think the answer of “they don’t pass normal grammatical rules” is a valid argument (no vowels) as this means to make them words you would have to change the spelling ( Devedee ) which is putting the cart before the horse. Also the rules originally came after the words, so maybe if words are an evolving organism, the rules should be one too.


    • larrycheng said, on July 24, 2011 at 9:40 am

      Dee – fair point. There are probably numerous examples where an acronym takes on a word-like feel, including the ones you mentioned. At that point, there may be an argument to consider it a word.

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