Tag Archives: not a word

Tsk, tsk! Or is that tut, tut?

“Tsk!” is a word that stands for something that isn’t a word that we use all the time because it’s not a word, but we mostly don’t use it for what we think we use it for. Here, let me explain in my latest article for The Week:

The not-word you’re always saying


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. Continue reading

conversate, incent

Hmm. I wonder what will incentivize me to conversate today.



(Clears throat.) Hmm. I wonder what will incent me to converse today.



Would you prefer I orate? Would that make you ovate? Would you be less disorientated? Or disoriented?

Look, I’m not sure why you’re fixated on something that’s not fixed. I will be happy to notate these usages if you will note them.

Conversate is, according to many people, “not a word.” Of course that’s not true; it’s a distinct lexical item, established in usage, with a clear meaning. But it’s generally dispreferred in many a person’s idea of the prestige standard version of English. It’s not new, though of course age doesn’t automatically make a word part of the prestige standard (ain’t is very old indeed); it’s attested since 1811, mainly in American colloquial usage. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that it is “In later use associated esp. with African-American usage.”

But the verb converse has been around far longer. And why have that extra –ate when you don’t need it, right? You’d think that logic would incent people to accept incent. Instead, many get incensed by it. “Give incentive to!” some insist. Others allow incentivize. But before the mid-1800s, there was no verb form for incentive, and between the 1840s and the 1960s the only available verb for it was incent. Finally someone added those extra syllables to make incentivize – so much more acceptable, right?

Well, yes, incent is a backformation from incentive. But if you want to edit it out, remember that edit is a backformation from editor. And if, like some excitable word-warriors, you would like to get a syringe and euthanize anyone who uses incent, you might pause to consider that syringe is backformed from the plural syringes – the original singular is syrinx – and euthanize is backformed from euthanasia. And orate is backformed from oration, and ovate is from ovation, and yet, although those two words have similar ages and traditions of use (both tracing back to the 1600s), I’ll bet orate sounds more acceptable to you than ovate does (though, to be fair, some people dislike orate too – not so much now as a century ago, however).

And then of course there are fix and fixate, and note and notate, which have different meanings. And the verbs orient and orientate, which mean exactly the same thing except one says you’re American or Canadian and the other says you’re from Britain or Australia or New Zealand or…

Meanwhile, incent is generally associated with business-speak, that buzzword-laden argot that seems far too impressed with itself and not nearly thoughtful enough. And yet it’s short and effective. Like orient.

Conversate, of course, is the converse: longer than it needs to be. Just like orientate. But it’s not really about length, is it. Not when incent is just as ardently dispreferred. When people inveigh against “abuses” and “barbarisms,” if you listen for a bit, you find that what exercises them is often that they attribute the words to people who don’t know how stupid they sound. Who think too highly of themselves. Who lack educational status and don’t know their place. Who are, in short, uppity.

Hmm. Almost makes you wonder if the word-peevers are compensing for something.

Say what?

Oh. Yeah. The tidy verb compense, directly formed from Latin compensare, was current from the 1300s to the 1700s but, starting in the 1600s, came to be displaced by compensateCompense can’t be used as a verb anymore. What a botheration.

We can’t magically instantly change which words are associated with which variety of English, of course, and we are not obliged – or even obligated – to use words that we dislike if words we like are available. Skillful writers should be aware of how their audiences will receive and react to the words they choose. But we should stop to consider how we react to words we dislike, and ask ourselves why.

Well, nice conversating with you. So to speak.


“This is mines!”

Mines? Can you really dig that?

It’s not standard English, that’s obvious: we’ve all learned that the predicate form of my is mine. Who hasn’t, in younger years, gotten something such as a Valentine card showing insects digging for gold with the text “Bee mine!” It wouldn’t ever be “Bee mines!” – would it? Even the monolexemic seagulls in Finding Nemo say “Mine! Mine!” not “Mines! Mines!”

And yet some people still use mines. And, as we sense instantly, it has an air of… immaturity? Youthful innocence? Something like that? It’s not exactly like the double-plural as seen in, for example, “Nasty hobbitses” – it doesn’t have that creepy tone. But it’s also not flavourless like the double plural in children. (What, didn’t you know that children is a double plural? The singular is child, and one old plural suffix – still seen in German – was –er, and another – also still seen in German, and evident in some old English words – was –en, and they got stacked together on child, with the first e dropped out. I’m tempted to say it’s because whenever there are several kids it always seems like there are twice as many as there actually are.)

Where does that extra –s come from? The Oxford English Dictionary explanation is straightforward and inarguable: it’s added by analogy with ours and yours. But somehow, because we have mine already, that –s can carry a flavour of some other –s suffixes.

Other? Sure. There’s the plural, of course, but if you can hear or see not just “These are mines” but also “That’s mines,” it’s clearly not a simple matching plural form. No, there are a couple more. One comes from the genitive used adverbially, which means the –(e)s that became –’s and –s’ but originally was much more widely used. We see it, among other places, in nights as in “She works nights” (contrast that with “She works hours,” which means not ‘she works hourly’ but ‘she works for a time period of multiple hours’), in besides to mean ‘in a by-the-side manner’, in anyways to mean ‘by any way’ (no, that’s not a plural foolishly added to an obviously singular word), and in amidst with an accidental extra t to give a sense that is very similar to amid but may signify something more distributive.

The other –s is what lexicographers call “hypocoristic,” which means it’s a diminutive form for nicknames, pet names, et cetera. You may know that Prince William’s nickname is Wills. There’s also Babs for Barbara, the friendly British term of address ducks (“I’ll ’ave it up right away, ducks”), din-dins for dinner, and so on. It’s related to the –sy suffix as seen in teensy, artsy-fartsy, BanksyBetsy, and Nancy.

Neither the adverbial nor the hypocoristic is thought to have had a role in the addition of the s to mine. But they may influence its reception and use now. After all, few people look words up in etymological dictionaries before using them, but everyone makes conjectures based on other things that sound and feel similar. Saying “That’s mines” may make it feel more ongoing or widespread than “That’s mine,” or may make it feel cuter. Or may just make it feel like it matches “That’s yours” better.

Mainly, though, when you read it, it will make you think of who uses it – who you have heard or seen using it, or who you imagine would. If you’re in Scotland or the north of England, you may hear it from various people, as it is said to have a certain regional currency; it’s attested since the 1600s and isn’t out of use yet. But if you’re in the US or Canada, you’re more likely to associate it with youth who haven’t had it badgered out of them yet.

As I said, mines (in this sense, as opposed to the plural noun) isn’t standard English. You wouldn’t use it in most documents. But precisely because it has a particular tone and association, you can call it up when you need to set the tone or establish something about a character who’s speaking – or be cute or ironic. Even “wrong” words have their uses. Our lexicon is a great, vast mine full of varied gems; indeed, it’s several mines. Not every word is a diamond, but they’re nearly all valuable for one purpose or another. And if you don’t want this word, well, then, it’s mines. I’ll keep it to toss it in at just the right moment.

funner, funnest

Know what I think is fun? Playing with words. A pun is fun. Scrabble is funner. But tweaking priggish prescriptivists is funnest.

Funner? Funnest? If you do a Google search on “not a word,” funner will show up pretty early. There are many people who are determined to make sure that others know that funner is not a word – and funnest isn’t either. To them, funner is unfair and funnest is downright funest.

They’re obviously wrong. I just used those words, as many others have, and you just understood them, as many others have. They’re the comparative and superlative forms of the adjective fun. Is fun an adjective? Of course it is. It’s been used as an adjective for well over a century. Prescriptivist has only been in use about half as long, since the 1950s, but I bet you didn’t say it wasn’t a word!

Of course, that’s part of the problem: fun has been around a long time… as a noun. And a verb. So the adjective form that showed up by the late 1800s seemed like a new upstart, and it has carried that stigma in the minds of people who long for the simplicity of a time when we had no mobile phones, no televisions, no cars, and the infant mortality rate was over 20%. They don’t necessarily want to restore that infant mortality rate… except when it comes to words, where they would like to smother nearly all the neonates. Even among those who have come to (perhaps grudgingly) accept fun as an adjective, there is a frequent reaction against funner and funnest: this upstart doesn’t merit inclusion in the grand old set of single-syllable adjectives that can be modified like that!

I can’t change the fact that some people see language as a means of expressing and enforcing a simple, simplistic, inflexible order – both mental and social. Such people tend to see fun as the opposite of adult. Or they would if they accepted fun as an adjective. The only fun they want is in fundamentals (and somehow those fundamentals have been pulled right out of their own fundaments). Well, real adults know how to have good fun and do fun things. And I guarantee you that playful people have far funner lives than prigs do. And accomplish more useful things too.

People of the priggish bent, being authoritarian, naturally do not wish to admit lexemes to recognized wordhood just on the strength of people actually using them. We can safely say they would sooner make such people non-persons than allow “non-words” to be words. So they will point to dictionaries. Dictionaries are meant to be field guides, documenting the language but always following popular usage, but many people think they are legislation, and a word not in the dictionary is not a word at all.

Well. I can flip open my handy Scrabble dictionary (published by Merriam-Wesbter) and find before me funner and funnest. Do you not accept the authority of the Scrabble dictionary? Very well. Open your Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (or visit it online, as I just have) and see “fun adjective” with the note “sometimes fun•ner; sometimes fun•nest” – or go to dictionary.com and see it as an adjective with funner and funnest listed as comparative (and superlative). Happy now?

You’re happy now if you were hoping for that outcome, of course. But if you’re of the priggish authoritarian bent, this is likely where you reveal that you are selective with authorities. These modern dictionaries! They have disgraced themselves! You know better. Which somehow means you accept less into your mind.

But limitation is not a virtue. Being able to do less with language is not a good thing, unless you think self-abusively following needlessly restrictive dogma as a sign of obedience is a good thing. I don’t. In my view, creation is the obvious point of existence: new things, new variations, new arrangements. Not chaos but new connections. And the way to create is to play and discover. To have fun. Not a rock-star room-trashing party (no one really does that with language, not even teens) but a collage, a mobile, a fantastical garden. Indeed, the people who truly understand a subject are, in my experience, the ones who have the most fun with it… and are, consequently, the funnest people. Sometimes the funniest, too.

Repainting birds

There’s been a discussing among some of my fellow editors in recent days about a word – the word complicitly – seen in a document. Should it be changed? But why? Well, it’s not in the dictionary. (“Which dictionary?” is of course another question.) But it fits in the sentence and there’s no problem understanding it. But it’s not in the dictionary! Maybe we should rewrite the sentence to be safe. Etc.

The is the point where I sigh, roll my eyes, and tell a little story.

A guy painting pictures and feeding the birds in a park sees a bird land near him and come up for some food. He doesn’t normally see birds that look like this one. He looks in his field guide to birds and it’s not in there. There’s one that looks like it but has yellow streaks on its wings. So he paints yellow streaks on the bird’s wings before feeding it. Of course, now the bird is going to have some social and aerodynamic problems, but at least it’s a real bird now.

I trust you see what I’m getting at.

Dictionaries are like field guides. They’re not legislation. They tell you what you can see in the wild, but they’re not always exhaustive, and they lag behind reality. We’re editing. We do what we do to enable and enhance communicative effectiveness. We’re not repainting birds.