What makes a word a word?

Anne_Curzan_-_Anatol_Rodgers_LectureWhat makes a word real? Anne Curzan, professor and language historian, enlightens us during her 2014 TED presentation at the University of Michigan. She first introduced herself by explaining her social life, and assures the audience that it really is important to what she has to argue.

“When people meet me at parties and they find out that I’m an English professor who specializes in language, they generally have one of two reactions.” Curzan recounts.

“One set of people look frightened. They often say something like, ‘Oh, I’d better be careful what I say. I’m sure you’ll hear every mistake I make.’ …then they stop talking… [a]nd they wait for me to go away and talk to someone else.”

“The other set of people,” she continues, “their eyes light up, and they say, ‘You are just the person I want to talk to.’ …then they tell me about whatever it is they think is going wrong with the English language.”

One such encounter came from a dinner companion. He complained about the word ‘defriend’, which he argued wasn’t a real word. At this, she stopped and asked, ‘What makes a word real?’

In just over 17 minutes, she explains that it isn’t fair to say one word is real while another is not. The reason being that language changes all the time. Words are either being used or not being used. The popularity of these words are then voted on at the American Dialect Society convention, resulting in one being awarded recognition as ‘word of the year’.

“Anyone can come and vote,” She explains, “but the biggest rule is NOT to use two hands.”

Past words have been: Tweet in 2009, Hashtag in 2012 and WMD in 2002. Now, around the same time, the Lake Superior State University lists their banished word of the year. Which happen to be the same sort of words that get into the Word of the Year in the American Dialect Society.

The reason?

“We’re noticing the same thing.” Curzan said. “We’re noticing words that are coming into prominence. It’s really a question of attitude.”

Curzan explained that while there may be a reason Lake Superior State University lists it’s banned words of the year, it doesn’t make them special and it most certainly doesn’t make them right.

“What I’m saying is, we should be less quick to decide that that change is terrible…” Curzan says, “…we should be entirely reluctant to think that the English language is in trouble. It’s not. It is rich and vibrant and filled with the creativity of the speakers who speak it.”

According to Curzan, language must always constantly evolve to keep it ‘robust’. Language, according to Curzan won’t speed up so quick that a speaker can’t keep up. “Language just doesn’t work that way,” she explains.

So, how does a word get into the dictionary? It gets in because “we use it and we keep using it”, and dictionary editors are paying attention to that.

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