Is it a word if it’s not in the dictionary?

I’ve always thought of the unabridged dictionary as the authority on what is or isn’t a word. But words existed long before dictionaries. And every word that has been added to the dictionary had to exist before it could be added.

So the dictionary can tell us positively that something is a word, if it’s in there. But it can’t prove that something isn’t a word. So what does determine if something is a word?

I read an very interesting column a couple of months ago, about using “undictionaried” words. I’ve generally tried to avoid using such words (though here on my blog I feel somewhat free to take linguistic liberties I would not in other contexts). But Erin McKean, the founder of wordnik.com, sees no good reason to avoid using a good word just because the lexicographers haven’t yet given it their imprimatur.

Of course, McKean points out, that’s not justification for making up new words just for the sake of novelty. Too many unfamiliar words, whether dictionaried or not, will reduce the reader’s comprehension. Encountering a new word that sounds just right is a pleasure. But new-fangled words that seem to have little purpose other than demonstrating the writer’s cleverness may have quite the opposite effect.

If a word gets plenty of use, it has no trouble making it into the dictionary. But I read today about a repository for words that haven’t been deemed worthy of inclusion, at least not in the venerable Oxford English Dictionary. I particularly liked earworm – maybe I’ll have to make a point of using it and help it get established as a valid word. I was surprised to see locavor on the list. Is it just a variant spelling of locavore, which I see used a lot?

I think, as a writer, that I’d feel quite a sense of accomplishment if a word I created only made it as far as the OED’s secret vault. (Though, the vault being secret, I suppose I’d never know.)

One Response to Is it a word if it’s not in the dictionary?

  1. Peter L says:

    I believe the OED uses a literary standard before adding words. A word has to have so many appearances in legitimate literature before the OED accepts it. That said, I think sometimes the British are snobbish when it comes to Americanizations of other words. So, if Webster doesn’t have it, it isn’t a word, right?

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