Perfectly Cromulent Words

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Word nerds love Erin McKean. If you aren't yet familiar with her oeuvre, here's the short version: McKean is a totally hip editor/lexicographer for the New Oxford American Dictionary. She's spoken at both Google and TED, and she's the top Dictionary Evangelist of our day. She's the author of Weird and Wonderful Words, More Weird and Wonderful Words, Totally Weird and Wonderful Words, and That's Amore (which is also about words). Got it? Okay, let's nerd out on words. In a recent article for the Boston Globe, McKean argues in favor of words that "aren't real words." For a lexicographer, this is a pretty liberal stance -- and I think it embiggens our language. Here's a sample:

But if all these words look wordish, sound wordish, and act wordish, why are they all hedged about with the namby-pamby "I know it's not a real word" disclaimers? (Note: wordish is a perfectly good word.) We all know that there are words that no one can complain about (when was the last time you heard a grammar rant about apple or Tuesday or fair?) and words that almost everyone finds offensive (no need to print them in a newspaper). What we don't have a firm grasp on is the acceptability of a wide range of other words, especially words we've hung affixes on. Redness is OK, but what about grossness? Heroism is fine, but what about thespianism? We have similar problems with words that have undergone a shift in function or part of speech ("shopping at thrift store" becoming thrifting, anonymous becoming verbed as anonymize), nonstandard forms (funner, huger, interestinger), and, of course, any slang words someone hasn't personally heard or used (chillaxing, wackaloon). What does a word have to do to be a "real word"?

Read the rest for a thoughtful, well-reasoned defense of "wordish" words -- from someone who knows her words.

(For those who aren't familiar with the term "cromulent," let me point you to the Wiktionary definition or the Wikipedia page on Lisa the Iconoclast. Sample usage: "He's embiggened that role with his cromulent performance." -Principal Skinner in The Simpsons.)

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October 23, 2008 - 8:08am
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