Some Perfectly Cromulent Words

… are included in a piece I wrote in the Boston Globe, which ran today — check it out here.
Many thanks to Jan Freeman for letting me keep her chair warm while she's on vacation!

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17 thoughts on “Some Perfectly Cromulent Words

  1. Interesting column, and I don’t disagree with a word of it. I’ve got just one question: Who or what are you arguing against? You make the sweeping statement that “someone, somewhere is using them with a disclaimer like, ‘I know it’s not a real word…'”, but you don’t provide any actual examples of people doing that. Creating new words on the fly by combining words or adding prefixes or suffixes is pretty common. As long as they make sense in the context, there’s no reason for an editor to change them. I’m a copy editor, and I wouldn’t have changed any of the words in your examples. I think the column would have worked better as an outright celebration of creativity in wordsmithing, not as a criticism of some nonexistent point of view.

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  2. I lurved it!While I think insecurity about “real” words is sad and authoritarian prescriptivism is a social evil, I do think it’s legitimate to recognize that words do have implications for the register and tone of language, especially in writing. “Chillax” is not interchangeable with “calm down.”A fully literate person will know when s/he is using slang, neologism, jargon and archaism. In fact, using such words ironically is a very fashionable form of wit at the moment and one of the signs that people who think the language is going to hell in a LOLbucket don’t know what they’re talking about. But the audiences for such writing don’t always get it, which may be another reason why some people choose to mark their style explicitly — whether with an apology or a smiley.

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  3. Joe — the whole column was inspired (although there wasn’t space in the piece to explain the inspiration) by a search that I subscribe to based on the phrase “not a real word”. Each of the “not-real” words I mentioned has shown up somewhere, in print or online, with that label slapped on it. For instance, here’s a link for “dancey” : http://tinyurl.com/63tm4qand for “wackaloon”: http://tinyurl.com/6x8qdnYou should be able to find all the words referenced in the piece by searching [word] “not a real word”, but your internet may vary.

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  4. It seems to me that apologizing for using a “non-real” word is really a product not so much of insecurity about writing, but insecurity about using language at all, undoubtedly instilled in the speaker or writer’s early years by parents or teachers who were strict proscriptivists. I know my own family, who blessed me with a quick mind, a love of words and books, and a great many other things, also cursed me with the fear of speaking the word ‘apricot’ aloud, because my pronunciation was corrected so many times that I now now longer remember whether it is supposed to be AH-pri-cot, or APE-ri-cot. Even though I know that there would be no difficulty understanding me amongst any of my hearers (so long as they are fluent enough in English to have the word for the succulent orange fruit in their lexicon), no matter how I pronounce it, I hesitate, for a fraction of a second, when faced with speaking its name aloud. A conditioned response, I suppose, not unlike Pavlov’s dogs.When I hear someone say “I know this isn’t a real word, but…” What I hear is a plea not to dismiss out of hand what they have to say on grounds that it wasn’t said grammatically. It’s a frequent trick by those who don’t want to hear what the speaker or writer has to say, after all, to denounce the message on the grounds that the words they are using aren’t real, so how can they possibly know enough about what they are talking about to be listened to at all?Thanks for a thought provoking article. I found you from Dress A Day, but I’m not a dressmaker (or wearer). I’m a writer, who loves your words.

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  5. Fowler called this word patronage: “the tendency to take out one’s words and look at them, to apologize for expressions that either need no apology or should be quietly refrained from.”

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  6. What a great article!IMHO, if I make a word up, and the people listening can figure out what I mean, then the word is a success.The infernal correctors (folks who say, in their most condescending tone, “I don’t think that’s a word, maybe you meant to say ________?) can take their current dictionary and shove it up their…well, I won’t make a word up for that.

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  7. Your TED presentation was great and this article is fantastic. Bravo! (I’m still looking for the right moment to use “synecdochically.”) It is seductive to read a certain New York Times Magazine article every weekend, but your argument about a few dangers in that are well received.There is an irony here; it may have been eluded to above. Hyperlinked pages are a great new medium in which a dictionary can grow. And for these new words to mutate an multiply. But quick publication comes at the cost of little editing. The blogosphere especially seems to squander the currency of attention in favor of immediacy and pleonasticity.As dictionaries grow with personal expression (both events welcome on this end), what tools will we use to navigate, understand, and parse productive expressions from redundant? Or potent expressions from wasteful? Editors will reach for dictionaries, no?Running your encouragement to an extreme, do we not reveal a catch-22, or tension that has always surrounded your profession?Just wondering, and Bravo! again!Peace,Jason

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  8. way to go ninja up on the fossils!I coined “groovindipity” yesterday and I’m well on my way for some more…groovindipity (n): the act of stumbling upon some most excellent tuneage completely unexpectedly

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  9. Not only is Erin’s attitude one of my favourite things among Anglophones but I sincerely think that it partly accounts for the spread of the English language in different parts of the world.See, I’m a Francophone. My native language is a neo-colonial language. It’s favoured by snobs the world over but it’s snubbed by youths in those parts of the world where the language was once clearly dominant.Fellow Francophones frequently find me eloquent. Winning praises (if not prizes) for my language skills in French, I’ve had to adapt my speech so as not to intimidate.Yet I still feel self-unconscious when I write or speak in my native tongue because there’s too frequently a prescriptivist to be found, rummaging through my prose for some sign of weakness. As an effect, I write more (and more quickly) in English, a language I learnt as a teenager, than in French, a language of which I master a large number of varieties.OTOH, I get caught up in situations which give prominence to curmudgeony Anglophone language snobs. Not academia, where formal language can often be creative. But among authors, including bloggers, who think of themselves as defenders of strong values.I, too, saw that TEDtalk and was empowered through it. Erin, you’re a breath of fresh air. Even more than the Language Log contributors, you’re able to adopt the perfectest attitude in terms of getting people excited about the potential for lexical creativity.In other words you, Erin, are lovelitastic!

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  10. Hey, cruised over to Arts and Letters Daily and noticed this article linked in the Nota Bene column on the left side of the page. Currently second from the top which means it was linked recently.

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  11. prescript: Erin, your writing is delightful, and I’d like little more than to have a cup of tea and a lively discussion about language with you.I’m not half the linguist you are, and am liberal about creating my own words, but I can’t seem to shake knee-jerk reactions to “funner”.Maybe this is because it was drilled into me–“NOT A WORD”–in my youth, but beyond that, maybe it has something to do with “funner” being devoid of poetry and having a deplorable mouthfeel.For all the joy and creativity that comes from neologing it up, the writer and editor in me believe that straying far from standards sharply diminishes credibility. Language is a powerful thing. Can we really afford to paint everything outside Webster’s as “creative” when some of it should really be called “lazy”?Though it’s very possible that all those implied “you”s in the article weren’t aimed at me. :)(The more I think about it, the more I find the doubling of adjectives ((adding -er or -est to something that is already an adjective)) to, more often than not, be poor wordsmithing. But I am a snob. Who plays Scrabble. 😀 )

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  12. A great article. But if you are truly serious about discouraging the qualification, ‘I know it’s not a word’, then you are going to need to offer a replacement cue that signifies, ‘I’m not doing this naively.’Because humans are vainglorious and any solution that doesn’t cater to that will never be adopted widely.I’m willing to bet that many of the people who ‘I know it’s not a word’ have already been trained to view the dictionary descriptively rather than prescriptively — i.e. they are already aware that the code is arbitrary and strict observance is fruitless, but that just isn’t the point of saying ‘I know’. The point is to communicate that you know, so that narrow-minded people won’t judge you stupid.What’s the alternative?

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  13. @paul laroquod:Just let narrow-mined people think you’re stupid. Who cares what they think, so long as you have the truthiness to know you’re right?

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  14. I just discovered your TED presentation and, as a result, your blog. I enjoyed both your presentation and the Globe article.Many years ago I was attempting to explain something to my wife, stammering in the process. Playfully, she asked, “What’s the matter, suffering from thesaurusitis?”I think “thesaurusitis” is the perfect word for expressing the state of being tongue-tied, especially when the condition manifests in an academic.

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