In a Ted Talks episode, Erin McKean argues about words.

387px-Erin_McKeanWords–For Erin McKean, lexicographer, words should be fluid. As a constantly evolving thing, language should not be trapped inside strict rules or guidelines, otherwise language would have never become what it has. French would have never diverged from Latin; likewise, Old English would have never become modern English. But according to McKean, we can’t just stop at modern English, German, Spanish, or any other world language.

“…my job as a lexicographer is to try to put all the words possible into the dictionary.” McKean said. “My job is not to decide what a word is; that is your job.”

But words can be hard to make up, argues McKean. Sometimes others try to repress words from naturally being created because of, what they think, is grammar.

“Now, sometimes when people are trying to decide whether a word is good or bad, they don’t really have a good reason. So they say something like, ‘Because grammar!’” McKean said. “I don’t actually really care about grammar too much — don’t tell anybody.”

One of the reasons McKean isn’t a fan of grammar is because too often people mix together two  different types of grammar. One is natural, which is proved by an experiment by a Professor at Boston College named Jean Berko Gleason, who created the “wug” experiment.

The wug experiment shows two made up birds and because of our inherent knowledge of grammar, we, according to Gleason, know that the plural, in English, is “wugs.”

“You never had to be taught this rule. You just understand it.” McKean said.

These grammar rules, however, are different than the other type of grammar because these are “natural laws.”

According to McKean, the other type of grammar is more for manners. It would be like saying that type of grammar is like a hat.

According to McKean, we know not to put a hat on our feet, but in different situations we have to wonder whether to keep a hat on indoors or what type of hat we want to wear, etc.

This type of grammar, according to McKean, is what linguists call grammar “usage” as opposed to actual grammar. This is the type of grammar people try to use to discourage others from making up words.

“But that makes no sense to me,” says McKean. “Words are great. We should have more of them. I want you to make as many new words as possible.”

McKean explained six different ways a person could make up words:

1. Steal them from other languages.

Examples: Kumquat (Chinese); Caramel (French); Ninja (Japanese)

2. Squishing words together or compound words

Examples:  Heartbroken; Bookworm; Sandcastle

3. Blend words

Examples: Brunch = breakfast and lunch; Motel = motor and hotel; Electrocute = electric and execute

4. Functional Shift

Examples: Friend used to be just noun but is also now a verb; Commercial use to be just an adjective, but is also now a noun.

5. You can Green Things

Example: letsgreenthiscity

6. Take the first letter of each word and smash them together.

Examples: NASA; OMG

Words are an interchangeable part of culture and just because one person says not to do something doesn’t mean you should listen.

“Why should you make words? You should make words because every word is a chance to express your idea and get your idea across. English has no age limit.” McKean said.

McKean hopes to encourage word-making by adding whatever new words are sent to her, she’ll put them up on her online dictionary.

You can view the video here:



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