Myths of Language Change, Part 1: That’s Not A Real Word

The changing face of our language has created an interesting conundrum. On the one hand, people recognize and delight in the language change of the past. But on the other hand, people routinely resist current changes in the language. The language they learn as children is, for many, the only acceptable manner of speaking. Change is vehemently eschewed.

How people can revel in the changes of the past yet fiercely resist the changes of the present is just bizarre. And it is futile. The language will change whether we like it or not, and no amount of resistance will stop a change whose time has come.

Prescriptivists and grammarians may have some minor victories. For instance, they have managed to keep ain’t out of formal speech. But they have not come close to stamping it out altogether. And in the meantime, other “abominations,” like irregardless, manage to stick their nose under the tent and eventually the entire camel is inside. Fighting language change is like the resisting Star Trek’s Borg—futile.

This resistance usually takes one of several classic forms. In this series of articles, we well examine each of these classic errors of resistance. The first is:

That is Not A Real Word

Dictionary, n., A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic. This dictionary, however, is a most useful work.
—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

How many times have you heard someone say “that is not a real word?” And in almost every case (outside the context of games of Scrabble®) the statement is dead wrong. It is, in fact, a word. It may not be a standard word. It may not appear in a dictionary. But it is a word.

Of course, on one level this is not an error. People can’t go out and invent their own vocabularies. If they did, no one else would understand them. But the objection is rarely, if ever, over a matter of comprehension.

I still remember the shock and horror when I heard the director of marketing at my firm use the word impactful in a sentence, “we need a really impactful ad campaign.” The very fiber of my body rebelled upon hearing that word. It just felt wrong. Yet there was no communication problem. I understood exactly what she meant. The word is simply a derivation of the common word impact and the common suffix –ful, a very standard and productive pattern of word formation. As I heard others use it, I gradually began to realize that it really was a rather useful word, especially in the world of marketing and advertising. It conveys a nuance that other substitutes, like effective, successful, or emotional, do not. Gradually I have come to accept the use of the word (although I still can’t bring myself to use it myself).

Sometimes the claim that a word is not real is phrased as, “it is not in the dictionary.” Obviously, if we were limited to just the words in the dictionary (and which dictionary will we choose?), there would never be any new words. The language would become hard and inelastic as Bierce fears. This brings us to the question of who decides what is correct or Standard English.

There is no body of experts that meets in London or Washington and passes judgment on words and phrases, deeming which are worthy of canonization and which should be cast into perdition’s flames. Instead, the editors of a particular dictionary make the decision of what to include and what to exclude. Each dictionary has its own criteria to guide the editors. Some leave out scientific and technical terms. Others leave out proper names. American dictionaries omit British expressions, and vice versa.

Almost all English language dictionaries are descriptive in nature, rather than prescriptive. That is, the editors seek to describe how words are used, not to tell people how they should be used. So if a word is not in a dictionary, what does that mean? Well, it simply means at least one of the following statements is true:

• The word does not conform to the editors’ rules for inclusion.
• The word did not exist or was not widely used at the time the dictionary was published.
• The editors made a mistake and left out a word they should have included.

For example, there is no entry for impactful in the Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition, but the word does appear in that dictionary. It can be found in a 1975 usage citation, “overdramatization of an already impactful event.” For whatever reason, the editors did not give the word its own entry or recognize it as an adjectival form of impact, but it was not because it did not exist.

Of course, this doesn’t give one license to use any word at any time. You probably want to avoid the word ain’t in a job interview for instance, but not because it is not a word. It may not be appropriate in a given situation, but it is a word, one good enough for writers like Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner.

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