For copywriters, words are our stock in trade.
We choose them, use them and occasionally lose them.
But have you ever stopped to wonder what, exactly is a word?
Like any good writer, I turn to my dictionary (Shorter Oxford, a monstrous 3,743-word two-volume tome).
Here, I discover a word is, as a noun,
I 1 ‘A thing or things said’.
And as a term of art in linguistics,
III 9 ‘Any of the sequences of one or more sounds or morphemes (intuitively recognised by native speakers as) constituting the basic units of meaningful speech used in a sentence or sentences in a language’. [My italics.]
So, let me ask you, is ‘fub’ a word?
According to I 1 it is. According to III 9 it is not.
Hmm. So far, not so good.
Perhaps there are different kinds of words. Words that mean something and words that don’t.
How about selfie?
Most people, including the compilers of the Oxford English Dictionary agree. It is. In fact, the latter named it their Word of the Year in 2013. Out of interest, how old do you think selfie is?
One year? Two? Five? Ten?
It was first used on an Australian online forum in 2002.
Before 2002 it was a meaningless word. Then meaning accreted to it like twigs and grit around a caddis fly larva. It became meaningful.
Unless you opt for a purist view that words are any sounds that human beings emit from their mouths, in which case many other animals also have a rich vocabulary, the freight of meaning seems to be the most useful way to distinguish words from non-words.
But as we see with selfie, the acquisition of meaning can be a sudden and recent phenomenon. Which implies that there is a temporal dimension to both meaning and the designation of sounds as words.
In the 1500s, transistor was not a word. Nor were antibody, paperback or biro. Now they are.
This beautiful conundrum is summed up by the fact that we have a word for new words: neologism. Literally ‘new word’, and derived from Latin.
Leaving aside the mindwarp that comes when we realise neologism itself must once have been a neologism (and what did they call it then?), it points to a longstanding acceptance of new coinages. Provided they fulfilled a useful purpose.
So, selfie passes the test, fub fails. For now.
Why does this matter? It’s back to our trade. Supposing tomorrow you need a new word to describe an attribute of a product or concept. Yes you could turn to your dictionary or thesaurus and you would find all the meaningful words you need.
But suppose none of them is quite right?
I guess you could make one up.
If enough people use it consistently, it will acquire meaning permanently and enter the language.
And consider this. ALL words are neologisms.
Every single word you use was once used for the first time. Ever since a caveman said, “bear” instead of “uueerrhh”, words have been coined.
For a fantastic online resource, try The Online Etymology Dictionary by Douglas Harper. Be warned: you could lose a day.
I love being instructed by pedants that so and so is ‘not a word’. Or ‘not a real word’. Generally they are wrong linguistically. Take the following list. How many of the words do you think you’d find in the dictionary? (You might like to try the list on your friendly neighbourhood nitpicker.)
The answer is all but one, which I made up.
And often they (pedants) are also wrong in fact, in that the thing they object to is not a non-word, but instead a neologism.
If you want to start a small war, pick a word that is most commonly used as one part of speech and suggest that it is another part of speech. You might, for example, tweet that word is a verb.
Which it is of course. It isn’t only a verb, it’s a noun too. But it is, or can be used as, a verb.
Perhaps all this means that, like Humpty Dumpty, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”
There are limits of course. You can’t use ‘grammar’ to mean ‘punctuation’, though many pedants try. Established words have established meanings, and it takes more effort than it’s worth to subvert them, though politicians, generals and estate agents try all the time.
But as new entities arise, new concepts take root in the popular consciousness and new species are discovered, new words must be found to name them.
And who better to give voice to these newbies than copywriters? Fub!