You know what discombobulation means, right? It’s a jokey term meaning ‘upset, confuse, put out of order’. It comes from a 19th-century American fad for fake-highfalutin words. Absquatulate (‘leave, get out’) is another such. Discombobulation starts with clear, well-known parts – dis indicating an undoing, com indicating joining or togetherness – and ends with ation, which makes it clearly a noun formed from a verb of doing or making, and if you know your Latin bits well you may also recognize the probably diminutive ul before that. But in the middle is this bob that is just… um a thingamabob. Probably the same bob as in thingamabob, even. The earliest form of discombobulate, seen in 1825, is discomboberate; in 1834 there’s a discombobracate. But by 1839 we were seeing discombobulation for the noun.
Anyway. The general logic of English derivational morphology tells us that if something can be discombobulated, it was probably previously combobulated, and it may by implication in the future be recombobulated (provided the discombobulation isn’t irreversible). Neither of those latter two is in any standard published dictionary, but so what? They’re no less understandable than discombobulated, and I for one am perfectly gruntled by them.
So is Barry Bateman, the former airport director of General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee. And so are the myriad travellers who, having emerged from the security check at Mitchell rather chalant and peccable, are quite consolate to see signs indicating the Recombobulation Area: a place where they may reassemble their pieces, put their shoes and belts and jackets back on, stuff their computers back in their bags, and generally return to a state of array. Security is a disruption, a discombobulation, but a transient one. And the little bit of wit – a word that exists by implication and is easily understood but had not before been seen and so seems topsy-turvy – is well appreciated as they get their turvy and topsy back in place.
It’s well appreciated farther and wider, too. Pictures of the signs have been shared on social media and articles have been written about them. The American Dialect Society named recombobulation area the Most Creative Word of the Year for 2008.
Dictionaries are slower on the uptake, as they must be: they’re large efforts with not-so-large staffs, and for a word to be included it needs to be in general usage and likely to stay that way. So it’s not surprising that Merriam-Webster and Oxford and Dictionary.com haven’t added it yet. The far more responsive but rather more questionable Urban Dictionary (apparently largely cyberscrawled one-handedly by poorly supervised 14-year-old boys) has added it – the first entry is from 2006; so has Wiktionary, which is really a splendid and multilingual resource, even if it lacks the professional staff of the big players.
But hey. Recombobulate is out there, it’s being used and understood, and you saw it and understood it. The only thing is that some people seem to find it… discombobulating. Even today, almost a decade after a society of linguists and lexicographers named it one of their words of the year, some people call it “not a real word.” One article from 2015 says “According to dictionary.com, ‘recombobulation’ is not a word.”
That’s not how dictionaries work, folks.
And that’s not how words work either.
A word is a word when it is used and understood as a word. It is something that fills a word slot – noun, verb, etc. – and conveys meaning from a speaker or writer or signer to a hearer or reader or viewer. It doesn’t even have to be assembled from known bits, but that helps because it increases the likelihood that the audience will understand it.
A dictionary is a field guide to words. The people who make dictionaries observe the words that people are using, and they select ones for inclusion; the selection has to do with audience and resources, and no dictionary includes all the words in use. It’s just not possible, nor is it even advisable, because some words have very short lifespans (slang and brand names often produce such shooting stars). But the number one thing to remember is that a word has to be a word before it’s included in the dictionary. Lexicographers may leave out something that is a word – in fact, they leave out thousands of words in any dictionary – but they will not include something that is not yet a word. Dictionaries take the great chaos that is our language and combobulate it for a particular purpose. They do not invent it or legalize it.
And anyway, if it’s not a word, how do you use it? If, for instance, internet wasn’t a word before it was in the dictionary, how did it convey meaning? It wasn’t a blank space in the sentence, an inaudible gap or bleep in the spoken language, until a dictionary gave it the imprimatur. A bird that’s not in your field guide is a still a bird, you know.
I understand that a witty novel formation may be briefly discombobulating for the reader. But our language is flexible, and – for the most part – our minds are too. We can readily recombobulate and assimilate. And even if the word was not quite onputting, with any decent perspective and sense of humour we should be regruntled.