“But that’s not a real word because it’s not in the dictionary!”
As we hurtle headlong towards Christmas, and I personally crawl toward my two weeks of vacation time, there are opportunities to play games with friends. My personal preference is to mix games with alcohol – and not because I’m an alcoholic-in-training or a lush but some activities just happen to seem more fun when your sense are mildly impaired.
So after two beers, the first game to play is called “What’s your favorite new word this year?” which is not just the sort of game a bunch of tweed-jacketed, corduroy-trousered, pipe-smoking university types play. No sirree, it’s for anyone who spends any amount of time watching TV and reading The Urban Dictionary.
The folks at the Global Language Monitor group based in Texas publish their top words of the year based on a sampling methodology that includes trawling through millions of words over a 12-month period. This year’s top ten is as follows:
3. the narrative
5. guido and guidette
7. snowmagedden (and ‘snowpocalypse’)
You can check out the meanings at the Global Monitor website.
Meanwhile, the New Oxford American Dictionary published its own list of top words for 2010:
The definitions can be seen at the OUP blog.
When Oxford announced refudiate as word of the year, a common response was one of shock and horror that a word coined in error by the celebrity politician Sarah Palin (celebritition or politebrity anyone?) should be added to the dictionary. And besides, the egregious nature of the error was being rammed home by spell checkers across the world as Microsoft Word and WordPress underlined the word every time it was typed!
The truth is that although refudiate became the OUP’s word-of-the-year, it may not make it into the actual Oxford dictionary. That’s because getting into the Oxford is not as simple as inventing a word and e-mailing it to the editors. No, there is a process to becoming a “real word” that you can look up in a book or, as things are now going, online. The New Oxford American Dictionary (NOAD) that came out in September (and yes, I was one of those who had it on order) included a slew of “new” words, such as bromance, Interweb, staycation, and truthiness – all of which still show up as errors in WordPress.
The notion that a word isn’t a “real” word until it appears in “the dictionary” is common enough. Of course, which dictionary is THE dictionary is always up for grabs. For me, a word is solid if it appears in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which is either the 20-volume version I have stacked up in my library or the latest online version, released just a couple of weeks ago. I’ll also use the NOAD because that can offer some words of American origin that don’t appear in the OED, and The Merriam-Webster dictionary, again both hard copy and online.
But what happens if a word is not in any of these dictionaries but appears to be in circulation across the Interweb? Well, I always recommend The Urban Dictionary for two reasons: The first is that it is a consumer-driven project that can respond very quickly to new coinages – even if 95% of them disappear in a few years; and the second is that it a damn good laugh!
You can also fall back on good old-fashioned language detection work – a sort of “linguistic CSI” for language geeks. As an example, how about the word apodyopsis, defined by the Urban Dictionary as;
The act of mentally undressing someone
Over at another online dictionary, the fascinating Sex-Lexis sexual dictionary, we can find a similar definition, although a little more is added;
The erotic fantasizing of women undressing; imagining women naked; undressing women mentally
When you’re faced with a word with which you’re unfamiliar, it’s worth trying to think of a similar word – one that either looks the same, sound the same, or both. In this case, I first thought of the words apocalyse and apocryphal, both of which have the apo- part.
The former means “an uncovering” or “revealing” and comes from the Greek ἀπο, which means “from,” followed by καλύπτειν meaning “to cover.” In the case of apocryphal, it refers to “being of questionable authority,” and the sense of ἀπο here is “away” along with κρυπτός meaning “hidden.”
Going back to the OED and the Merriam-Webster, scanning through the apo- words turns up apodyterium, which is defined as;
The apartment in which clothes were deposited by those who were preparing for the bath or palæstra; hence gen. a dressing-room, a robing-room.
Ah, so now we’re closing in. The first part of the word, ἀποδύειν, apparently means “to put off or undress,” and note that our ἀπο is still there – the “off” piece. And if the apody- bit means “take off,” what’s the -opsis part all about?
Well, thinking again of similar looking and/or sounding words, surely the words optic and optician spring to mind, and we know that optical means “in reference to the eyes and seeing.” With this piece of the puzzle now in place, we can now understand that the word derives from the Greek and means, in a literal sense, to take of or undress using the eyes or vision.
This little bit of detective work helps us to understand the derivation and ultimate roots of the word, but still doesn’t tell us when it first appeared. To do this, surfing the Internet can be extremely useful. With apodyopsis, there are references to it in terms of the definition, but none specifically to its origin. Even the wonderful corpora of Mark Davies at the Brigham Young University failed to turn up any occurrences of the word.
The furthest back I could trace it was to something called The Grandiloquent Dictionary, which is the creation of physicist Christopher Bird, who says he wrote it as an online collection of rare and obscure words in 1998. Sadly, Bird simply defines the word but gives no origin date or source.
So what we are left with is a word constructed from Greek but with no date of origin and no extensive use. If people were to begin using the word with some frequency, and also over a long period of time, it might find its way into a dictionary. However, for now it’s one of those limbo words that has enough usage to make it visible but not enough to warrant an entry in a dictionary.
And as long as someone, somewhere thinks it’s a word, then it is!