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In Defence of Hearing “It’s NOT a Word!”

I like the order of dictionaries. Rules. The glue that holds civilization together. But the thing that I really do love about words within the context of language is our ability to create rules that allow us to throw away the rules as we evolve through centuries of common usage. Dictionaries evolve. Language doesn’t languish. I’ll try to explain to you why “It’s NOT a word!” is a ridiculous pedantic statement (unless we are playing Scrabble).

Have you ever heard of words called nonce words? In the Middle Ages nonce was a term for a special occasion, a particular purpose, or for the one. Claudius used the term “for the nonce” in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It’s an old word that evolved through the early 14th Century as an empty filler in metrical composition and in 1884, at the hands of James Murray, editor of what would become the Oxford English Dictionary, nonce became an adjective. Words used only for the nonce, for the occasion.

The English prison term nonce means child molester. This usage appeared in the 1970s from unknown origins. It has nothing to do with the term nonce used throughout history. Don’t be confused.

So, a nonce word is made up for an occasion. And a nonce word is highly likely to be picked up by the aspiring pedant to call us out over; they’ll say “It’s NOT a word!”. Even though a nonce word is most certainly a word.

I’m slapping my forehead at this moment simply because I constantly repeat myself – dictionaries don’t form language, they attempt to define, categorize and contextualise it. Language evolves and as common usage of words increases they may enter or leave the dictionary at editorial discretion. They don’t, as journalists keep insisting, “become words” when they enter a dictionary. The dictionary allows us to nail down an agreement on what commonly used words mean, their origins and phonetic sound. Dictionaries do not “make words”… or even “make words into real words”.

And dictionaries cannot possibly encompass “all the words”. That would be impossible and ridiculous in the extreme.

So, that rant aside, all nonce words are therefore neologisms – newly coined terms, words, or phrases not yet in the lexicon. A nonce word is a lexeme not yet in the lexicon. I hope that makes sense.

In other words, just like Lewis Carroll, Shakespeare, Douglas Adams and the writers of Mary Poppins, I can create nonce words. It’s that simple. What someone generally means when they say “It’s not a word!” is that it’s not a word in the dictionary. But nonce words are, clearly and unequivocally, real words.

Which brings us to another term – portmanteau words. A portmanteau word is a blend of the sound and meaning of two words into a new word. For example, the words smoke and fog blended to become smog. A new word was created by combination of two defined concepts into a new one. Many nonce words are also portmanteau words.

Portmanteau words were first mentioned by Lewis Carroll when Humpty Dumpty said to Alice – “You see it’s like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word.” A portmanteau is a two compartment suitcase. Thus the creation of portmanteau words by melding two words into a new one.

Compound words, on the other hand, are where two words are butted together. For example, grandfather. This is not a portmanteau word, but a compound word made from grand and father. Were I to write “grather” it would be a nonce word (and therefore a neologism) and a portmanteau, rather than a compound word.

Finally, compound words shouldn’t be confused with contractions… like should not becoming shouldn’t.

I certainly do understand the desire to correct another person’s grammar. But when to do so is a tough call, because it begs the question what is NOT a word? For example, I was called out earlier this year for inadvertently using the phrase “for all intensive purposes” in a post on this weblog. However, this instance fell under the definition of an eggcorn. It’s legitimate. Sorry to that pedant, but I’ll stand by my writing. Because everything we learned in high school English classes wasn’t the be-all-and-end-all of grammar and language. And a lot of our understanding of language falls to our personal vocabulary.

So, “It’s NOT a word!” probably only applies to Scrabble contests. It’s a word if you create it and use it with a meaning and for a purpose. In this way, nonce words are an important part of how we get such wonderful pieces of literature like Alice in Wonderland, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Hobbit and MacBeth. And, yes, writing is an incredible technology when you sit down and think about it. Life would be pretty boring without a good read and a coffee.

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About the Author

Steven Clark Steven Clark - the stand up guy on this site

My name is Steven Clark (aka nortypig) and I live in Southern Tasmania. I have an MBA (Specialisation) and a Bachelor of Computing from the University of Tasmania. I'm a photographer making pictures with film. A web developer for money. A business consultant for fun. A journalist on paper. Dreams of owning the World. Idea champion. Paradox. Life partner to Megan.

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