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Is That A Word?

Words can be endlessly fascinating.  But how many of us really know what constitutes a word?  In this activity, your students explore groups of letters that once were English words (and maybe still are), that might become them, or that already have.  To see resources related to this activity, click here.

To me a word is a group of letters (written word) or sounds (spoken word) that communicate an accepted meaning.  Thus a word can be said to be an entity that has an accepted pronunciation, spelling and meaning.  The easiest way to verify a word is to see if it is listed in a dictionary.  However there are many dictionaries, some listing many more words than others.  Children's dictionaries contain fewer words than desk dictionaries, which contain fewer words than collegiate dictionaries, which contain fewer words than unabridged dictionaries.  And all of these pale when compared to the Oxford English Dictionary.  And then there are all of those professional and technical dictionaries.  However, if a word is not in the dictionary you have at hand, could it still be a word?  And what about "words" whose use is only now becoming common enough to be recognized by lexicographers?  Might they be real words too?

So, language is not static.  Like everything else in life it changes over time.  Words no longer used are lost, new words come into being, and existing words take on new meanings.  Use this activity to introduce your students to that dynamism.

  1. Choose a "word" with which to work.  I find it best to select "words" that will have some resonance with students.  Strange words that seen vaguely familiar.  A word like "bellibone", no longer used; or one like "affluenza", struggling now for acceptance.  See my list of resources below for books and web sites where you can find these sorts of words.
  2. Write your chosen word on the board, or spell it while your students copy the letters onto any paper they have handy.
  3. Ask your students what they think it might mean, and how it should be pronounced.  You might want to begin with a brainstorming session, then move on to lead a discussion and attempt to reach a class consensus.
  4. Present the definition, pronunciation and history you have found for the word you've been discussing.  If the word is no longer used, talk about what caused its loss and what word(s), if any, we now use in its place.  If we've lost and not replaced it, discuss why we no longer need a word to represent such a concept?  If it is a new word (or a new meaning for an older word), consider why we need it and what, if anything, it might replace or complement.  If it is a word that has been in dictionaries for awhile, but with which your students are unfamiliar, discuss why students haven't heard of it.

Resources to use with and extend this activity

Books Web Sites Assignments and Activities

  1. Forgotten English 
    by Jeffrey Kacirk 
    Paperback - 256 pages (March 1999) 
    Quill; ISBN: 0688166369

Read the book's Table of Contents to see some of the words discussed

  1. The Endangered English Dictionary : Bodacious Words Your Dictionary Forgot 
    by David Grambs 
    Paperback - 288 pages (August 1997) 
    W.W. Norton & Company; ISBN: 0393316068
  2. Poplollies and Bellibones : A Celebration of Lost Words 
    by Susan Kelz Sperling 
    currently out of print - search for it in libraries and used book stores
  3. Ladyfingers and Nun's Tummies : From Spare Ribs to Humble Pie-A Lightearted Look at How Foods Got Their Names 
    by Martha Barnette 
    Paperback - 224 pages 1st Vintage edition (December 1998) 
    Vintage Books; ISBN: 0375702989 

Read an excerpt from the book

Visit Martha Barnette's web site

  1. The Oxford Dictionary of New Words 
    by Elizabeth Knowles (Editor), Julia Elliott (Editor) 
    Paperback - 368 pages 2nd edition (March 1999) 
    Oxford Univ Pr (Trade); ISBN: 0198602359 

read a review by Michael Quinion

  1. Word Watch : The Stories Behind The Words of Our Lives 
    by Anne H. Soukhanov 
    Paperback (September 1998) 
    DIANE Publishing Co; ISBN: 0788156551 
  2. Slanguage : A Cool, Fresh, Phat, and Shagadelic Guide to All Kinds of Slang 
    by Mike Ellis 
    Paperback - 304 pages (June 2000) 
    Hyperion (Adult Trd Pap); ISBN: 0786885203
  3. Speaking Freely : A Guided Tour of American English from Plymouth Rock to Silicon Valley 
    by Anne H. Soukhanov (Editor), Stuart B. Flexner (Editor) 
    Hardcover - 448 pages (October 1997) 
    Oxford Univ Pr (Trade); ISBN: 019510692X

read the book's Table of Contents

  1. America in So Many Words : Words That Have Shaped America 
    by David K. Barnhart, Allan A. Metcalf 
    Paperback - 320 pages (September 1999) 
    Houghton Mifflin Co (Pap); ISBN: 0618002707

read an excerpt from the book

read a review by Michael Quinion

  1. The Way We Talk Now
    Commentaries on Language and Culture from NPR's Fresh Air
    by Geoffrey Nunberg
    Paperback - 256 pages (October 15, 2001)
    Houghton Mifflin Co
    ISBN: 0618116036

read an excerpt from the book

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  1. Looking for more dictionary activities?

October 16, Noah Webster's birthday, is celebrated by teachers as Dictionary Day.  This Education World page contains links to dictionary activities that your students might enjoy.

  1. Michael Quinion's World Wide Words

    Here you'll find lists of new words struggling for inclusion in the language, weird words that might be dropping out, topical words that are in the news, and much more.  In my opinion this is the finest site available for those wanting to keep up-to-date on the ever-changing English language.  Michael Quinion updates the site on Saturday mornings.  If you like, you can ask to be put on his automatic e-mailing list to receive each week's additions in your e-mail box.

    Of relevance to the activity on this page, Quinion explains how words "officially" become part of the language in this article.

  2. the American Dialect Society's Words of the Year

    Each January, the American Dialect Society meets to select a "Word of the Year".  At the same time, it selects words that are "Most Useful", "Most Unnecessary", "Most Likely to Succeed", "Least Likely to Succeed", "Most Outrageous", "Most Original", "Most Euphemistic", and "Brand New".  Its selections from 1990 to the present are shown.

    On December 18, 2001, linguist Geoff Nunberg discussed Words of the Year candidates for 2001, as well as past winners and losers on Fresh Air.  If you have the Real Player installed for your browser, you can hear what he had to say.

    YourDictionary.com also posts fun and informative lists.  Here are links to those for:

    You can also track the popularity of individual words as measured by the number of times they've been looked up on certain word sites.  If this sounds interesting, take a look at:

  3. Geoff Nunberg's pages

Use this as a portal to the Stanford linguist's online writings.  Here you'll find links to transcripts of several of his Fresh Air commentaries.  His writing and perceptions are first rate.

  1. How words are created
  2. How words get into the dictionary
  3. Merriam-Webster explains how words get into their dictionaries
  4. New words from the Random House Webster's College Dictionary
  5. Coined by Shakespeare: Words and Meanings First Used by the Bard

read a review by Michael Quinion

  1. American Slanguages
  2. Slang, New Words and Dictionaries

This NPR Talk of the Nation discussion was broadcast on August 7, 2000.  In it, Wendalyn Nichols (Editorial Director, Random House Reference) and Mike Ellis (author of Slanguage) discuss how slang evolves into common usage and is incorporated into standard dictionaries.  If you have the Real Audio player installed for your web browser, you can hear it by clicking on the listen icon on the page that comes up.

  1. In Times of Terror, Teens Talk the Talk (a 3-19-02 Washington Post article on the effect of the 9-11 attacks on teen language)
  2. How many words are there in the English language?

Jesse Sheidlower tackles this question in this April 10, 2006 article for Slate.  There he takes issue with Paul JJ Payack's attempt to set a precise number.  Geoff Nunberg also looked at Payack's effort in a commentary he contributed to Fresh Air on May 8, 2006.  He has posted a transcript on his web site.  News coverage of Payack's claim tended to be uncritical.  Like Sheidlower, the editors at Merriam-Webster see little value in attempting to set a precise number.  Michael Quinion deals with this question on this page of his World Wide Words site.

Paul Payack was interviewed on NPR's Day to Day on February 1, 2006.  You can listen to that interview via a link at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5182871

Payack declared, in an entry on his Global Language Monitor, that the million word milestone had finally been attained on June 10, 2009, at 10:22 am (GMT). He announced that the one millionth word was "Web 2.0". He didn't explain why he considered this a word rather than a phrase, instead sometimes referring to it as a "term". Ben Zimmer, editor of VisualThesaurus.com, called Payack's repeated reports of the impending arrival of the millionth word (beginning in 2006 and continuing with updated target dates through 2009) a series of publicity stunts in this January 2, 2009 Language Log blog entry.

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  1. Going, Going, Not Quite Gone
  2. Dictionary Wannabes
  3. Words That Were Born With You
  4. It's New to Me
  5. Them's Fightin' Words!
  6. Dorky is Born
  7. Crazy English - use Richard Lederer's book as an entree for engaging dictionary assignments
  8. A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia is a longer activity that deals with similar ideas

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original web posting: Sunday, August 6, 2000
last modified: Wednesday, January 25, 2017