Is It a Word?

I often see questions about whether something is a word. My response is always the same. If you type, write, or say it – it’s a word. A better question would be whether it’s a standard word.

Last week I was surprised to come across this common misunderstanding in – of all places – the prestigious New York Times. I read an excellent article about Benjamin Dreyer, author of a new book called Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.

I’m looking forward to reading Dreyer’s book, and I also enjoyed the Times article:  Meet the Guardian of Grammar Who Wants to Help You Be a Better Writer. 

But sheesh – there it was, right in the Times: Meanwhile, the president of the United States thinks ‘seperation’ is a word.”

According to the dictionary, a word is “a sound or a combination of sounds, or its representation in writing or printing, that symbolizes and communicates a meaning.”

You don’t have to like the word. Maybe it’s vulgar, or misspelled, or silly. But irregardless is a word, and so are ain’t and binky. They’re not standard, and you won’t even find binky in any dictionaries. But they’re all words.

If you think about this “what’s a word?” question, you can see why we have to give word status to every neologism that comes along. Revising a dictionary is a long and expensive project. Does it really make sense to forbid people to talk about – say – “software” and “malware” until lexicographers get around to revising the dictionary?

Here’s something I wrote just a minute ago:But sheesh – there it was, right in the Times.” Wait a minute! Is sheesh even a word?

No need to ask.

Dictionary with an magnifying glass on top

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