What's in a word?
Learned Vol. 4, Issue 1
This week: trying to define the word, word. Then, footnotes, housekeeping, and a bit of trivia to get us out. Let’s dig in.
What’s in a word? Or, actually, what is a word? I mean, over the past three years, for this newsletter, I’ve written over 130,000* words about words without ever really stopping to talk about what a word is. Which is ridiculous, because we all know what a word is, right? So, what?
Quick story: It’s a boring day at work circa 1999 and so I’m looking to kill a little time chatting rather than do anything actively productive, so I pull up ICQ** and send a quick message to my friend Elle. “What’s the word, yo?” Now, to me, early 20s, raised on a steady diet of Yo, Mtv Raps, this should read as “What’s up?” But tone is really hard to read on the internet. She gets back to me right away. “The word ‘yo’ is an interjection.” Not a drop of irony in sight. Whatever, we had a good laugh about it.
But here’s the meta: In both my unintentional question and Elle’s answer, we understood “word” to mean two totally different things. For her, it marked a distinct grammatical point from which a factual inquiry could be deduced. For me, it became a metaphor symbolizing her current whereabouts and doings. In other words, in that moment, her definition of word differed from mine.
This confusion over how to define word represents one of the underlying difficulties of science: where do you start? Famously, Carl Sagan said, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” Okay, not completely applicable, but, still, where do you start? How do you use the word, word, to define other words if you do not first have a definition of word?
So, let’s back up. Let’s find a definition for “word.”
The Routledge Dictionary of Language and Linguistics offers this definition for word: “Term used intuitively in everyday language for a basic element of language.” Which they then follow up immediately with, “numerous linguistic attempts at defining the concept are not uniform and remain controversial.” Great. Clears that up.
The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar does slightly better: “A meaningful unit of speech, which is normally not interruptible, and which, when written or printed, has spaces on either side.” The dictionary goes on to give two additional characteristics - words can’t be rearranged and still retain meaning. So, if I take all the letters (or sounds) from word and rearrange them into dwor, which has no meaning I’m aware of, I have fundamentally altered word making it something new and distinct. The second characteristic is that words are often the smallest unit of sound that can “reasonable constitute a complete utterance.” The examples they give are words like yes and no. However, as they themselves acknowledge, this is not a 100% true rule. After all, I could answer a question with nuh uh. Does that make nuh uh a word? Two words? The debate rages on.
One of my favorite into to linguistics textbooks, The Secret Life of Words gets into the difficulties of trying to define what a word is. They use the example of cat: “When each of us learned the word cat, we encountered different cats, yet we arrived at some shared concept of ‘catness.’” It’s this idea, that of a shared understanding of a class of things or ideas that forms the core of their definition of word. When I use the word cat, you understand that I am referring to a class of objects or symbols that generally conform to our shared understanding of small-furry-creature-that-is-not-a-dog. But of course, even this is not a perfect definition because, under it, we would need to consider each identically shaped (or sounded) instance of cat that did not refer to not-a-dog as a new word. Like the big, yellow tractors that are sometimes called cats. Or the play / movie called Cats. Or the mid-century slang that called cool people cats. So, is cat one word or a dozen?
Even taking these definitions (or non-definitions) into account, we haven’t seen anything that addresses the miscommunication between Elle and myself all those years ago. We might be able to innately understand what a grammatical word is, but what about a metaphorical one? Is there an appreciable difference between word and the word? We’ll get to that next week.
156 issues of Learned of approximately 800 words per issue (124,800) plus 26 issues of The Glossary at approximately 300 words per issue (7,800) plus one special edition of 2000 words equals 134,600 words.
For the younger readers: ICQ was to 1999 desktops what WhatsApp and Snapchat are to smart phones today. Only with much better color schemes. And fonts. And no emojis. Man, I miss ICQ.
Notes & Asides:
Welcome to Volume 4 of Learned. Slightly new format, but not too different from what you’re used to, I hope. That said, I’ve left this little bit here at the end where I plan to try a few experiments with little pieces of news, interesting facts, quotes, and so on and so forth. If you have anything you’d like to see me do in this space, let me know by replying to this newsletter or by leaving a comment.
In the meantime, feel free to share this issue with your friends. And, if you’re enjoying the newsletter, please consider subscribing. Subscribers get an extra monthly issue where I go more in-depth on some of the news and events happening in linguistics and related fields throughout the world and it helps me out. This newsletter doesn’t cost much to produce, but it takes a fair bit of time, so any contribution is greatly appreciated.
Depending on who you ask and how you count, English has between one and four million words. The average college-educated adult knows somewhere between 20 to 50 thousand but only uses about 10 to 15 thousand on a daily basis.