WUOMFM

Is that really a word or did you just make it up?

Apr 17, 2016

What if you've used a word your whole life, and then you find out nobody else uses it and you can't find it in standard dictionaries? Is it still a word?

That happened to University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan during a guest lecture recently when a student asked how many people need to know a word in order for it to be a real word.

It reminded her of a word her family's always used: Plogged.

As in "I'm so sorry I haven't responded to your emails, but my email box is plogged."

The students were unanimous: Plogged is not a real word.

"I grew up with this word. It means plugged and clogged," Curzan says. "Your nose can be plogged, the toilet can be plogged."

So the search was on for plogged in the dictionary.

"The folks at the American Dictionary of Regional English put out a query, and we've gotten some sightings in Sussex, England and in Illinois, Ohio and West Virginia," Curzan says. "Clearly it's not a lot of people who know this word, but for those of us who know it, it's a wonderful word."

But it is a real word?

"It's meaningful for the people who know it, so it's a real word to them."

Curzan remembers another student used the word snerrand, but only with her roommates.

"It's when you sneak out to run errands and you're in your sweatpants and you haven't brushed your hair, and you're hoping no one will see you," Curzan says. "It's not a widely used word, but for her and her roommates, it's a word because it's meaningful."

Is there rule to determine what is or isn't a real word?

"I don't have a good answer to that, but I think it's worth thinking about the words we value, and very few people know, and the words we don't value and very few people know," Curzan says. "So lots of scientific terminology, very technical stuff, used by a pretty small group of people, and we think, "Oh, those are fancy, smart words. Those should go in the dictionary.'"

"And then there are words that are used that are more slangy, more colloquial, and we say 'I don't know if enough people know that word to go into a standard dictionary.' So there is something about valuing culturally the stuff we think is important and serious, and stuff we think is less serious."

Do you use words that you or your family use that you've never heard anywhere else? Let us know about it!