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What makes a word a word?



a single distinct meaningful element of speech or writing, used with others (or sometimes alone) to form a sentence and typically shown with a space on either side when written or printed.

Based on the definition of "'word", it practically states that a word is an indicative and purposeful term (or element) of writing or dialogue. How does a word become a word? Does it get into the dictionary because people regularly use it, and the dictionary revisors make note of the common use of it?

Does anyone else have any thoughts/views on this? Thanks!

July 7, 2017



That is indeed thoughtful... It's not something people regularly muse over. In the past, I assumed that words become "officialized" because of their recurrent usage and the connotations they convey. The reason why jibberish like "yhzoask" isn't an actual word because it doesn't have true meaning, unless by the person speaking. Though, meaning can't stand alone, as it is dependent and as such relies on an object, thing, existence that instills purpose, as you stated. Meaning has to point to something, one way or another. A word is brought to life when it pertains to an actual existence in reality and is responded to by its normal usage to specify that existence. Those are my thoughts, though, I'm sure they are heavily flawed. Thanks for bringing up this topic!


That's what I've thought all along, too. To become a word, it has to have a meaning, and--as you have perfectly put it--refers to an object, thing, person, or anything that has a purpose.


Words can also point to intangible concepts that are only real in the consequences that result from people's interaction with the concept.

For instance, race is not real in the same way that a rock is real. There are people and more people. Some have more or less melanin in their skin. But, because of that, people have chosen to treat some people as different kinds of human beings, when we are the same species.

That interaction with the concept of race has had profound, real consequences, including various forms of violence (slavery, social and regional isolation, and so forth). The violence has encouraged (and sometimes mandated) cultural schisms, which have further evolved into culture differentiation. (And within that concept, other concept have interacted and that is why there is no "one culture" for this or that race.) There are still only people and more people, but now there is also the concept of race because of language.

However, race and a rock are not both tangible objects, though now they both have consequences. And while in the future the rock is still a rock or it's substance though separated still exists, society may change and the substance of the concept of race is malleable. For instance, the same person who is considered white in one country might be considered black in another country, because the regional cultures in those different countries do not have the same expectations for the various gradients of skin color. In other words "measures of human skin color are based on subjective categories that vary according to the situation and over time." Quote source. (Disclaimer: I have not read the study I linked. I was just doing some google searches trying to find some stuff I studied in uni and that line with the quote popped up. It was what I had been trying to say, only more coherent wording, so I borrowed it.)

As for dictionaries, they do not make up words, they report some of the common usages of words people are using. (So, if you're ever in a debate about what a word does and doesn't mean, don't point to a dictionary to note the absence of a meaning from what's listed as proof. Dictionaries don't work that way. ;)


Ah, yes- that is very true. Sorry to look over something like that. Even racial stereotypes, like the "N-word" or "❤❤❤❤❤" pertain to an ideal over a group of individuals, not really over the truth of an existence. Thanks for pointing that out!


Some time ago I have stumbled upon a really interesting video about behind the scenes of dictionaries. It's kind of relevant to this thread, because it's about words too so you might want to check it out here


I think that video is more than "kind of relevant" :)

At 2:45 it basically answers one of the orignal questions posed as clearly as it can be done!


A Word is a symbol made up of sounds and can be written down to express a set definition/s.


Words don't require sounds or written forms. Sign languages don't have sounds, and not all sign languages have written forms. But, they do have words. And outside of sign languages, there are languages that have sounds but no written form. :)


You beat me to it! But you're right--sign languages don't have sounds or written forms but, like you have stated perfectly, they do have words.


The things you just never think about, but then you can't stop thinking about. =)


The Bible claims that Jesus is the ‘Word of God,’ who spoke creation into existence.
Genesis 1:3 ‘Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light…’ NASV Genesis 1:6 ‘Then God said,“Let there be…”’ NASV Genesis 1:9 ‘Then God said,“Let there be…”’ NASV and so on for six days, and then he rested from ‘his work.’ NASV Genesis 2:2 “By the seventh day God completed His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done.” NASV John 1-4 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” ESV John 1:14 “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” NASV

The Bible also claims itself to be the embodiment ‘the Word of God.’ Exodus 4:28-31 “And Moses told Aaron all the words of the Lord with which he had sent him to speak, and all the signs that he had commanded him to do...30Aaron spoke all the words that the Lord had spoken to Moses and did the signs in the sight of the people. 31And the people believed; and when they heard that the Lord had visited the people of Israel and that he had seen their affliction, they bowed their heads and worshiped.” Isaiah 59:21 ‘“And as for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the Lord: “My Spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouth of your offspring, or out of the mouth of your children’s offspring,” says the Lord, “from this time forth and forevermore.”’ Matthew 24:35 “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” ESV John 17:6-8 ‘“I have manifested Your name to the men whom You gave Me out of the world; they were Yours and You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word. 7“Now they have come to know that everything You have given Me is from You; 8for the words which You gave Me I have given to them; and they received them and truly understood that I came forth from You, and they believed that You sent Me.”’

We were created in the image and likeness of God: Genesis 1:26-27 ‘Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” 27God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.’

Man is the only creature created with the gift of language, our ability to think rationally, and communicate is a result of having been created in the image and likeness of God.

In Genesis 11, God confuses the language of men; Genesis 11:7-9 ‘ “Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” 8So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. 9Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of the whole earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth.’

Something to think about.


You just make up a sound and tell everyone to call that thing that sound you said. And if you don't, you kill them and fight about it for a 1000 years


There's no real answer to the question of what a word is. This is why linguists prefer the term "morpheme": the smallest unit of meaning.

Take the word "antidisestablishmentarianism" as an example. If I asked you to split it up into parts, you would probably say something along the lines of "anti-dis-establish-ment-ar(ian)-ism". "Anti" definitely has meaning, as do "dis", "ment", and "ism", but are those words? Why is "establish" a word and "ism" isn't? In linguistics, all of the above word bits would be grouped into the category of morphemes, the fancy word for different bits that make up a word.

Also, you stole my profile picture.


It's worth looking at some of the words Lewis Carroll added to the English language. He invented many, and several are in such common usage today that few realise that they are made up.

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