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When Does a Word Get Real-Word Status?

Categories: Vocabulary Building Words, Vocabulary Research, Vocabulary Resources |

Do you ever wonder what makes a word … word-y? What are the criteria for a word to become an officially recognized part of a language?

There are many people who argue about where that tipping point is. Whether words like “slacktivism,” “bae,” and “feels” are proper words or not is still under debate. So to jump into the conversation, let’s look into how a word becomes a word.

What’s In A Word

For words to gain real-word status, a lot of people have to use them. If “selfie” and “vape” weren’t being used by a growing number of people then they would never acquire proper word status. In fact, “vape” was so extensively used that Oxford Dictionary named it the Word of the Year for 2014.

The Oxford Dictionary explains why “vape” was chosen:

“ You are thirty times more likely to come across the word vape than you were two years ago, and usage has more than doubled in the past year.”

Technology Leads the Way

So usage and popularity are two main factors that affect a word’s word status eligibility. Culture is the third.

Large scale events, new technologies, and advancements in science and other industries also give way to the creation and adoption of new words.

If researchers discover a new gene, a new correlation between atoms, or a new planetary system, words need to be created or borrowed from other languages to describe that concept.

Looking at word list from past years, it instantly becomes obvious how prevalent technology-related words are. And because technology lends itself to fast – almost viral – adoption, it should come as no surprise that in 2014 the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate® Dictionary list was dominated by techie words:

– Big Data

– Social Networking

– Tweep

– Hashtag

– Gamification

Nothing’s Permanent, Not Even Word Status

Rebekah Otto, Director of Content at Dictionary.com, says in an interview with Mental Floss that there’s a very thin line between slang and informal language. She poses this question to readers:

“What’s the line that delineates a phrase like “brogrammer” between being slang and an official word?”

Words are living organisms that are influenced by our culture and defined by human behavior, global trends, and technological innovation.

This can be easily observed by how fast a word with merely slang status – that is, a very informal word, used by a minority and not used in written language – gets informal word status or even proper word status.

For a word to enter the English dictionary, many happenstances have to collide. Cultural acceptance and adoption, usage, and online and offline media propagation need to be in place for a word to enter global consciousness and discourse.

But even if a word never gains Oxford Dictionary word status, it is still a proper word, in the minds and conversations of people that use it.  

Doctors use words that laypeople will probably never have to speak in their lives. Teens have their own slang words to communicate and affiliate with certain groups and identities. Professions of all kinds have their own obscure (to the uninitiated) words.

It could be said that a word becomes a word when it is spoken or used enough for it to make sense as a concept reference. Whether it is an officially accepted word or not, the status of a word should only worry you in circumstances when you need to use that word in formal writing or other contexts that require a certain level of formality.

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