Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Words as Things

I have a paper that I have read at several semi-professional venues called, “But There are no Such Things as Words”. It argues that words are intangible parts of a system that come and go, are created and disintegrate according to rules, in ways that make them uncountable. (I expressed a similar sentiment in “How Many Words are in English?“)

The recent surge (to use a military term) in lexical creations, like boomerangst, crackberry, politicide, and on and on and on would seem to test my position beyond its breaking point. I don’t think it does, though. I think that the Internet has made something new possible that leaves that impression but is misleading.

What has happened is that it is now possible for everyone with an Internet connection to not only talk with words but to talk about words. Words have become talking points, not just tools for talking. How many times have you ever discussed the words have or table or calm. It is a very rare occurrence. We use these words without thinking about them.

Now, another question: how many times have you used words like boomerangst (one of my favorites), crackberry, politicide, even truthiness without thinking about them while speaking to someone. Another rare occurrence. These are words we talk about; they are works of creative art, not the output of any rule of English.

English word formation rules produce words like googler from the new verb to google. They can (and have) produced truthiness from the regular word formation truthy generated from the noun truth in the sense of “containing or similar to truth”. All of these forms are automatically available when a new word enters the lexicon. If we picked up a new verb, blurk, blurking, blurker, blurkable, etc. are automatically “there”, available.

Another aspect of rule-generated words is that they are generated unconsciously. The blurk forms above come out of our mouths without thought, without losing our train of thought. The new generation of words, mostly sniglets are consciously created to amuse. This is why we talk about them more than we talk with them. If you know what blurk means, no one has to tell you what blurkability means. Someone has to tell what crackberry means and then it is funny.

The point I think I have arrived at is that words, which originally were communications tools, have become playthings. They have been that for a while among an elite group of intellectuals but now the entire cyberworld is infected. We are lucky to have Rich Hall’s term sniglets to separate these playthings from the real workhorses of language, words.

One Response to “Words as Things”

  1. mookbythebook Says:

    Another way of looking at it is that the evolution of words (and language in general) has speeded up.

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