DiscoverSlate Presents Lexicon ValleyThat's Not a Word, Is It?

That's Not a Word, Is It?

Update: 2017-05-16
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John McWhorter discusses the near-futile impulse to determine what is, and what is not, a word.

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let's become Valley is brought to you by Helix leap from mattress that's customized just for you go to he looks liek dot com slash lexicon and you'll get fifty dollars off your order right now and my head space download the head space to train your mind for a happier healthier life learn more head space dot com slash lexicon the from New York City this is what scum Valley a podcast about language and tone the water I teach linguistics a Columbia University my latest books are words on the move and talking Back in Black but today i'm in mind of something that happened last night I have been watching the old Batman TV show with my five year old daughter she gets a kick out of it because it's basically a cartoon and as many of you know in most of the episode there's some big fight the gigantic lie where they have the comic book panel towels and bangs popping up onscreen her we saw last night one of those BAM al panels was bought off and so I was reading off the panels to her because she still reads slowly pal ban and said baa off and she said now ah isn't really a word and thought to myself Well I suppose not that got me to thinking about another conversation that I had about a week ago with an old friend of mine we are at the end of our brief conversation on the staircase he said Well Soon we will reuse and then he said is that a word and we both agree that it wasn't but then again is it or is it not what determines whether something quote unquote is a word so of course one things well you're supposed to say re unite there's no re you have a re union but you re unite but let's face it me and this man we're talking about how we were going to re unite we didn't once they are like we meant something else we met were going to get together for a drink the way we always have really and yet I don't think it's a word in that you feel like you're making it up when you say it but let's face it a lot of us say we stop ourselves right before we're about to say it the funny things like that it leads you to think about very fuzzy nature of what a word is it's one of those matters that has always tickled me for example liaison ok so is there a verb to liaison I hear people saying it all the time now there's one where I don't say many people find linguists to be so non judgment about letting her know we're human beings in there things that don't taste good to me just as there are things that don't taste good to all the rest of you liaison I don't think of it as a word but to tell you the truth I have no scientific reason for determining that it's not a word because things that we do consider a word about all the time in the same way as people are creating the A's from Lee is on your VP right teacher liaison I was born only is there so as I sat on this show before the idea that there's this little round green thing called a p Not really that thing was recently called a peace it was a piece or rabies but because that sounds plural it was natural to think that peas are a lot of them and that one of them as AP and here we are the original word was editor there was no word at it that was what's called a back formation from editor which was taken from Latin wholesale and I thought well if there's an editor then you must be able to edit something but nobody was saying that until it's far as we know the late eighteenth century that's how these things go or listen to Porky Pig singing in nineteen forty he goes but the the the the the the that happens to be the first time that I heard the word to Molly and you know there's no such word as to Molly technically for the person who speak Spanish that object that people called it the mile and the plural is anomalous and so meaningless tamales and we figure Well okay then it must be that there's something called a tow Molly and we're not going to call it a mall and it's just too bad this is how words come about and it's why it can be so difficult to answer the question that many people ask a linguist as to whether something is a word as my friend did the other day with that review business so here regardless we are told and I think it's very clever that's not a word because regardless does the trick to put the gear on regardless is redundant and yeah it definitely is I first heard that in an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show I'm almost sure and I tried to dig it up but that's a tough thing to search but that's when I first heard that irregardless is not a word I thought oh that's right ok it regardless yeah that's that's a mistake and yet we say it all the time and nowadays I would say yes regardless is redundant but then again overwhelm anything well means if your overwhelming actually well home meant to overwhelm and so overwhelm is redundant or admit something to you and I hesitated when I was thinking about whether or not to put it this way for the podcast but decided that one must be true to oneself and so on can admit something disheveled I have always pronounce that word disheveled and I assume that the idea was that there was a dis leveling well I found out actually I admit and fifty one years old yes I call myself a linguist I found out this week it's not disheveled its disheveled I guess a lot of you knew that its disheveled as in decapitated de caffeinated do the leveled and the several had to do with the French word for hair you take something off of the hair extends into being just sloppy in general disheveled I thought it was disheveled and you know what I'm going because I can tell that by at least in this and not alone because I have used this Evelyn spelled it that way and discussed it that way and not one but two books and it's gotten by eagle eyed editors who otherwise were calling me on all sorts of things even those editors thought that the word was dis assembled this week something came over my trance them from a listener an adorable tiny little dictionary from eighteen seventy two that gives a wonderful window into the way for example Rutherford B Hayes would have spoken and it's fall of the queer pronunciations that would have made it so odd for us to listen to cultivated people in the late eighteen hundreds also one of those tiny little books with the tiny print that made me squint and reminded me that after forty your thoughts are not what they used to be but something that I found and Valerie Julia T thank you very much for that little dictionary it is already one of my treasures one thing I found going through it over a couple hours is that usually they only give the accent of words but every now and then they give the full pronunciation because they're correcting what people are generally mis pronouncing in their estimation one of those is for the word that I think of is disheveled they write disheveled which means that in eighteen seventy two already lots of people were saying disheveled or they wouldn't of had this impulse to quote unquote correct the autograph his disheveled May disheveled and man found sleeping in his own filth many are looking more disheveled than usual today so is this level the word is that the way it's pronounced is it dis level now rather than the several well you could say no because it's not that way in the dictionary but it's gotten around to a certain point and nobody can determine exactly what that point would be it's gotten around to a certain point there was room for saying that change has simply happen because goodness you just can't stop it the year uni you don't walk like everybody else or talk like everybody else or sleep like everybody else so why are your mattress is one size fits all the truly customize mattress if you've ever heard of such a thing can cost five to ten thousand dollars until now go to Helix dot com A few simple questions and they'll run a three D bio mechanical model of your body the result is the most common mantras you will ever sleep the air mattress arrives at your door in about a week and shipping is completely free it's 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English language he was American but he was a Shakespeare scholar and Richard Grant White didn't like some stuff and with great authority used a cane with great authority he would pronounce on things like the word standpoint there is a vulgar word is an IT standpoint why would anybody let that manure fall out of their mouth he didn't like standpoint but listen to his reasoning man but sometimes you can read his writing as humor because standards have changed so much in certain ways so here here's White standpoint whatever the channel of its coming in to use the sort to which the vulgar words wash tub shoe horn brew house cook stove and go Kart blown the first four of which are merely slow vainly and uncouth abbreviations of washing tub suing Horn Brewing house and cooking stove well okay that's how he felt he was listen to but I think we feel differently today about standpoint and he goes on he says but by no contrived can we explain standpoint as the point of or two or four stand and he compares it to these other cases rainbow bow of rain bread knife a knife for bread house top cop house dancing girl girl for dancing and standing point point four of standing well we now think of standpoint is a rather elegant little word and so I don't like the A's but I'm afraid that maybe by John Hamilton the quarter becoming the Richard Grant White of two thousand and seventeen so it just worries about such things which leads you to think about various tipping Point cases where you're inclined to think well that's not a word but then again Richard Wright for example dis dis tym is this a word you know it's being used so much now I mean over the past thirty years that word has really taken over and it's not quite synonymous with disrespect I remember the first time I realize that it was becoming quote unquote a word a woman in nineteen ninety four was telling me that my face You're just mad because I dissed you in which she and I thought most of you know she doesn't even mean that slang that's it that's a word and she didn't mean I disrespected you she meant something more specific having to do with dating and the timing the callings of such things dis and so you can think that I will know it's just so it's lying for disrespect but I think this has become a new word now how do we feel that angry the and will view the time before they get hungry hungry and angry you're in a bad mood because you're hungry it's so clever but we think of it as a joke Rachel and I hired a male nanny demands in any the many the is a man E E E but it's not really a word I guess not Nance plain spreading all of those we think of his coinage is as just little jokes but then again I don't know because if you look at the history of a great many words you find that well a lot of words are born from exactly these sorts of things that we've started as jokes flush does not go back to some ancient proto word boo or something like that it was a combination of Flash and Gus I'm sure there were dirty pre penicillin people giggling at the word floss for all sorts of reasons at first but now it's just a word twirl you can even guess what that is it's from twist loss world alimony is the joke it was when I was a little boy but at this point I think it's rather formal and scary term you never know so for example play you a piece of a song from a very bad musical I hate to say it the focus felt this way about it this is the Will Rogers follies from the early nineties and it was put together by brilliant people the sod Coleman's music and Mrs. Adolph Green Betty Commons lyric but this whole musical is basically the musical summation of the color pink but here's one song is called marry and listen to an expression that's used here goes get ready to tap your foot and think about the notice that lets middle aisle it all isn't that sweet that's a cute way of saying Let's get married left middle aisle it that's some lyric that some people from another time put into a song but you know real words get creative that way so for example arrive there is no ancient word something like Hadi bomb or something like that arrive comes from You Have To Leave A in French but in Latin there is no ivory Vera a word Areva day started in Latin as odd plus Ripa that's to the shore and so was a little idiom odd reply Re would have meant to get to the shore therefore to arrive so the word around five starts as to the shore it so to speak and now we never know it's just one word to say that nobody uses the word arrive in speech and then I started noticing that basically everybody uses it but me I used to say no people say get there but people do say or I never know anyway what is a word given where they come from given how random joke e the process often is so much of it really just comes out at par in so you can look in the past and you can see how arbitrary what a word is in for example words that came and then just went for no particular reason and so for example Independence Day ok but you could say independence the day their dependencies so why not in dependency and we think we'll know in dependency isn't a word but John Abigail Adams fought differently another musical a better one than the Will Rogers follies of seventeen seventy six and listen to Abigail singing about independents and notice the word that she's just the the the the uh the the the so I use that clip because of the podcast format but of course that comes from the Adams' letters that is what Abigail wrote that is what John Adams wrote it was in dependency well things tipped an independence ended up trying thing but you know you roll the dice again then the world would be in dependency it just happened not to make it or handsome ok ugly one of some of his gruesome there all sorts of words with some loathsome from what I was awesome that was a word for some reason it was more common in Scotland God knows why but some were trapped out several hundred years ago I use it all the time because I think it fits if something is handsome why can't something be of some frankly I also like to say shit so why not but ugh some cotton coat isn't a word but not for any reason I suggest that we bring it back start using it because it should be in the dictionary would be fun if the word here in about five years with some I say let's start here but for now we just end up wondering it's one of those borderline cases but so much about what a word is is really it's just it's not excitable it's no more sizable than where the line is between language and dialect or red and blue or democracy and Banana Republic you just can't determine the the thus be honest most problems start in the mind fear anger stress anxiety sleeplessness they began in your head but they can wreck your life meditation can help the head space is meditation Simple there's now a mountain of Sciences shows the possible effects of meditation and mindfulness is not just the thing it because my wife peaches and heads based app provides guided meditations that you can use whatever you want wherever you want on your phone have to sit and cross her legs and say things that everywhere they have sessions at space focused on everything from dealing with stress and eating healthier sleeping better and even being more creative it's one percent of your day can change the other ninety my way of meditating often involves bourbon I suspect that so the download head space that can for happier four at his face tough comps last what's the stats based dot com slash butts and now back to the and you might want to say a word is what's in the dictionary and I love me some dictionaries because they're big and brown and fragrant and their full words but you know people who published dictionaries of the forum to inform the other day a lexicon for forum the other day where they were talking about this it's really quite the subtle thing to decide what gets into the dictionary open up a big giant dictionary and you will find the word well home technically it's still a work but frankly it isn't no one uses it quite simply there's no well nobody uses welcome to mean over well in the dictionary basically because nobody has gone cleaned up the side ruthless well that means there's a word roof right you can find in the dictionary and it doesn't refer to a woman who today would usually be of a certain age Ruth can mean mercy nobody at gunpoint would say not even at gunpoint would say Please show me proof word but it's in the dictionary even the dictionary can't really be the arbiter here it's really tough and don't even get into for example flashing and what's a word and I don't mean say prisoners slaying of seventeen forty wear whatever they call anything we can pretty much dismiss now as an arc isn't because of the words are not her swell so I don't mean swell what your body sometimes doesn't mean swallows and she acts well okay we all know what that means but is that a word now it was a word swell was a jolly term something approval not too long ago so for example here is this I guess I'm on a musical kick today this is what I consider one of that at the Fiesta says that's unheard of recorded sound and this is the voice of an openly admitted just like I admit that I think its disheveled this is the full German in her prime and she singing everything's Coming Up Roses I love this the voice I don't think it's funny it's it's you or as a brass instrument and listen to the words she uses this nineteen fifty nine The The The The Stephen Sondheim wrote that lyric the Eisenhower era wasn't that long ago he did have and so on and yet you think about it now that we're would never be used in a modern lyric swell is not current usage today we know what it meant but I'm pretty sure that my children will not talk about anything being swell they'll think of it is an old word and frankly so it in quotation marks is swell a word you'll find in the dictionary listed not only as what your body might do but as a word for enthusiasm but is that they weren't isn't really used anymore if it is it won't be in about ten minutes so these are tough things to decide as it is even how many words are there in a language people often ask well as English have a bigger vocabulary than French disruption have a bigger vocabulary in Spanish especially though dozen English have more words than any other language and boy is difficult to count words so for example have ok has regulars not haves has is has a different word than have sounds different or is has a version of the word have I don't know or make up two words make up if you're talking about crap that you put on your face ok makeup but make up what are you making and how in the world is it up and sell makeup is a worried especially because you spell it as a world but to make up as in to reconcile to reconcile that's one word makeup is that too but if you reconciling what's up about the making and so is that two words that you've already counted make an up or is makeup as in we finally made up word and then you make up for something you compensate compensate as one word but then make up is the two words make up but make up when it means compensate is not over New York City is that three words think about when you say it so New York City city feels like a word but New York I certainly am not thinking of a York that's new because especially since I'm not British I don't really think about there being a separate York New York this is one thing New York City so to me New York City is two words really I know that you write it as three but I'm not aware of a York that can be new for me it's just New York and I've lived in New York for a long time goodness gracious there's nothing new about it new YORK New York City or San Francisco now imagine being my five year old in saying San Francisco this is just one word that's all it is now we write it as fall on and Fransisco okay that's how it's written because it's Spanish for Saint Francis but we don't speak Spanish please I'm not speaking Spanish on a walk around thinking about Spencer San Francisco san is a word and then Francisco is a word but I don't know what sand means in English the San Francisco I'm really just saying then I learned to ride it as two in the same way as I write ice cream as two words but really it's I scream I'm quite sure that my five year old doesn't know that it's ice cream and ice cream this is one word these things are really subtle so is boss the word know them in uh the the is reusing bin to think it is is liaison word no but I'm just saying that for the same reason that I don't like French onion soup I'm not sure there's anywhere we could draw a line and I'm going to close by sharing with you a beautiful case of this kind of thing where I think all of us just accept that a mistake has become correct this is such fun go to France and after you've finished seeing the Eiffel Tower or whatever then you might want to go to the town of arc to find out where June was born right there is no such town you have to go to a town called ole me that's where Joan of arc was born and her name was Joan dark her father's name was Miss Dark people assumed by accident and that Joan dark must've meant that she was Joan duo of Jack and so you end up with the apostrophe in and so she's Joan of arc but no pics no arc she's from really she should just be Joan dark but you don't want to call her Joan dark that sounds like somehow Hartley movie she is Joan of arc and that's just based on a mistaken so now that town of arc is a word if only to refer to the town that Joan did not come from the in the you can reach us at lexicon Valley of slate dot com That's lexicon Valley at slate dot com Follow us on Twitter at lexicon Valley Steve left eye is the executive producer of sleep balances chief content officer of the panoply network the show was edited by Mike hello I'm John the quarter thank you so much and see you back here in two weeks the
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That's Not a Word, Is It?

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