Thursday, May 1, 2008

What is a Word?

Ever since Wordcraft started in 2002, an ongoing question has been, "What is a word?" Unfortunately Bob's essay in that thread now can't be accessed; I'd love to read it again. In Shu's OED link, which still is accessible, the OED staff says, "To determine whether a word has caught on, we normally require several independent examples of the word being used, and also evidence that the word has been in use for a reasonable span of time." Really? Why, then, are there so many words in OED that have only been included in dictionaries or cited once? Wordcrafter tells me there are 14,000 such words. That's really the question behind "epicaricacy." Is it really a word? Even the original citation in Bailey's 1700s dictionary included a very different spelling. Yet, many words have evolved in their spelling, haven't they?

Shouldn't there be a neat, tidy definition of a word? I suppose the best might be its inclusion in OED, but mere mortals make mistakes. Maybe it's just that people use the groups of letters. I don't know, but it has been an ongoing conversation on Wordcraft and will be one here, too. Linguists haven't, I don't think, answered this question. But that's okay because we in the medical sciences haven't answered a lot of questions either.


goofy said...

I think linguists prefer to talk about lexemes and morphemes instead of words, since "word" is so hard to define cross-linguistically. There are some answers to the question here:

Kalleh said...

Thanks, Goofy. Obviously I am far from a linguist. It's too late for me to study linguistics, I suppose, but at work I call myself a nursing professor and a "wannabe linguist."

I am a little confused on the difference between a "morpheme," which is defined as "the minimal meaningful languate unit that can't be divided into smaller units." A "lexeme" is defined as "The fundamental unit of the lexicon of a language. Find, finds, found, and finding are forms of the English lexeme find." They seem very similar to me.

Broccoli said...
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goofy said...

I don't know enough to confidently say what the difference is. I think idioms would be lexemes.