or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The Real Thing

I find it hilarious that people object to one utterance or another on the grounds that "it's not a word". I think that if a particular set of consonants and vowels 1) has been heard on the lips of at least two people and/or 2) has appeared in print more than twice with 3) an obviously intended and understood meaning attached to it, particularly if it was 4) formed according to the rules of English, it may safely be called a word. What else is it going to be: a breath mint?

Words even get invented out of whole cloth. When Gellett Burgess invented "blurb", or Elzie Segar put "jeep" into his comic strip "Popeye", they may not have been words, but they sure are now. The words below weren't simply invented; they (or their non-standard usage) evolved naturally, due to the structures of English (except the last case, which is simple carelessness).

If you Google any of the following boldface words plus "not a word" you'll find that someone, somewhere thinks they don't exist, when clearly they do.

1) Supposably. "Supposable" is an actual in-the-dictionary word, formed in the standard manner--by taking a verb and suffixing "-able" to it. It means "able to be supposed: presumable; imaginable." "Supposably" is also a word, changed from an adjective into an adverb by the also standard method of appending "-ly" to a word. The trouble is that some people say "supposably" when they mean "supposedly". They're wrong, of course. But they're not using a non-word; they're using a real word incorrectly.

2) Irregardless arouses strong passions in some people, often the kind of people who think that English is algebra and therefore the two halves of a double negative must cancel one another out instead of intensifying one another, as they're clearly meant to do. "Irregardless is wrong because it must mean 'not regardless'!" Well, yes, and it is wrong, but it's not a non-word. It's an accidental formation mirroring "irrespective", which it more or less is intended to mean. It's not an attractive word, and to a great many ears it sounds wrong, its use indicating someone who's at best sloppy, at worst semi-literate. But that doesn't make it not a word.

3) Orientate is clearly a word. If we can back-form "motivate" from "motivation", then why shouldn't we be able to do the same with "orientation"? The trouble is that to some people (including me), we already have a perfectly good word, "orient", which has the added advantage of being shorter. "Orientate" appeals to some who think that the more syllables an utterance has, the grander it is; but there's no denying that for a significant number of people it's also the standard way of saying "orient". It makes me grit my teeth a little, but it isn't wrong. Not quite.

4) Loaned has been the target of some ire for a very long time. Loan, we are told, is a noun; lend is a verb, and the past participle is "lent": therefore, "loaned" is unnecessary and therefore it is wrong and therefore it must not really exist. Plainly it does, though. It is a substandard usage to some, despite the fact that "loan" as a verb dates from the twelfth century, and the really careful writer or speaker won't use it because of the stigma attached to it; but a non-word? I don't think so.

5) Alot is as close as we'll come to an actual non-word here. An unfortunate number of people write this when they mean "a lot". And they are wrong: "alot" is still considered incorrect in standard English. But in the most literal sense--it's a collection of sounds with a clearly understood meaning--it's a word. An awful, wrong one.


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