What makes a word real?

I teach English as a second language to Spanish speakers, so I like to teach them formal, informal, and slang simply because America tends to speak in an informal way when not in business and academic situations. American English has so many influences that it is almost impossible for even first language speakers to know every vocabulary word simply because regional dialects influence various groups more than dictionaries do. Y’all has been a word used in the south, well, for as long as I can remember. But, in the north, it was considered a word used by ‘ignorant southerners’ who had no grasp of “proper” English. I use this example as a Southern lady who used ‘yall’ in every sentence that required you all in it. However, after years of jokes about the regional use of the word, it made it into the dictionary as a recognized contraction used in informal speech. I think it is a good example of what makes a real word. We use it, whether proper or not, in a way that becomes a part of the language. After some discussion on the word, it became a recognized word in the dictionary which gave it more credibility even though I believe it was not needed to validate the word itself. I once won a $20 bet in Alaska after a person had the audacity to tell me that it was not a “real” word. So, I bet him that it was in the dictionary, and it was. It is in this manner that words travel from one region to the other. It was the dictionary that allowed the northerner to acknowledge it as a real word even though it was not used in the North at that time. I proved a point, but I never took the twenty dollars. It was all about honor, you know? I think both of these ideas make words real because they can be adopted by a society or acknowledged academically in the dictionary as a representation of the people who use it.


So, that brings me to my favorite “new” word that I recently learned. I write historical fiction, and I think it is important to be authentic yet readable by modern societies.  I like to research language that can create dialogues that meshes the two forms of language. I found the word “afternoonified” in a book called Passing English of the Victorian Era: a dictionary of heterodox English, slang, and phrase. It was written in 1909 by James Redding Ware where he defines Victorian era society language. The word ‘afternoonified‘ meant smart. The book gives the example that a storekeeper approaches a customer about the curtains in his store that she is dissatisfied with. Ware writes, “In reply to his question whether the goods were not suitable, the fastidious customer answered, ‘No thank you; they are not afternoonified enough for me” (3). The word first used by her caught on in society and became a real word in that era. However, it is not found today in the dictionary, but that does not mean it was not or is not now a real word. I tried the word on my daughter after she asked me how her hair looked for a video she was making, and I replied that style does not make her look afternoonified. Then I translated it to modern English and said that I didn’t like it. Alas, the word did not catch on so quickly as it did with the lady in the Victorian era. An online dictionary writes, “One of the most prolific areas of change and variation in English is vocabulary; new words are constantly being coined to name or describe new inventions or innovations, or to better identify aspects of our rapidly changing world” (Merriam Webster). This new word I learned is no longer used, but it is helpful to me as a fictional writer which is why I purchased the book to better articulate the language used by people in that society. But, by researching that society, I can learn new words that might one day be used again simply by catching on through the use in a book. By learning this form of language, I could create an uppity nob (snob) who would use this language. By simply using that one word, I authenticate that era while also using modern language to speak to my readers. The last thing I would want to do is use an entire book of Victorian language because no one today would want to read it simply because it would be difficult to understand. Those of you who have taken a literature class can appreciate what I am saying here. Shakespeare is no joke for the modern reader which is why academia is essential in learning it. Curzan and Adams write, “Language composes, though not exclusively, what we are as a species and who we are as individuals in society” (4). In this theory, the English language is constantly changing because the people in it are changing too. I think that quote also defines why it is important to take classes as we learn how and why it changed. Understanding the English language is essential for me as a teacher and a writer, but it is also important to understand as a first language speaker as well.


Curzan, Anne, Adams, Michael, How English Works: A Linguistic Introduction, Longman, Inc. 3rd Edition 2012

Merriam Webster, If a word is not in the dictionary, does that mean it isn’t a real word?, Merriam Webster Incorporated, etext, (2017).

Ware, James Redding, Passing English of the Victorian Era: a dictionary of heterodex English, slang, and phrase, London Routledge, (1909).


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