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Of course ‘clownvestite’ is a word!

Clown

Part of my job involves finding the extent to which Oxford Dictionaries Online is being linked to from other websites. To perform this task I query the search engines, and to see how you use our dictionary I visit a proportion of the websites linking to ODO that I find.

A significant proportion of inbound links to a dictionary website is created to settle arguments. Someone uses a word on a blog or forum that another person does not recognize as valid English, and to settle the argument a link to our dictionary is presented as the gold standard of proof either of its validity or of its inauthenticity. Typically these words are less familiar recent inventions such as grok and woot, or modifications of existing words such as incentivize which some people find annoying.

This is a very welcome use of Oxford Dictionaries Online but there is often something about it that leaves me slightly disturbed. We are used as arbiters of whether word x or word y is or is not a ‘word’, whereas in fact we should only be used as arbiters of whether it is a word in common enough usage in English to be included in our dictionary.

I appreciate this is an argument which verges on pedantry and semantics, but I still feel it is one worth making because there are many terms in use that may not meet our dictionary inclusion criteria but are still understood as words by the communities who use them. If any reader doubts this then our first-sense definition of a word should prove edifying:

a single distinct meaningful element of speech or writing, used with others (or sometimes alone) to form a sentence and typically shown with a space on either side when written or printed.

My favourite word that meets the above criteria perfectly for being considered a word without remotely meeting our inclusion criteria is ‘clownvestite’. It was coined in the sense I know it about ten years ago by a regular of UK Internet motorcycling forums to describe a devotee of the hip-hop fashion trend of ‘sagging’, or wearing trousers at half-mast. Literally a clownvestite is ‘someone who wears the clothing of a clown’. If I were to use it among my motorcycling friends I would be instantly understood so it passes the ‘meaningful’ test set out in the definition above, yet because there is currently no evidence for it in the Oxford English Corpus or our other dictionary databases my lexicographer colleagues would justifiably deny it inclusion in Oxford Dictionaries Online. But is it any less a word for that?

So please continue to use our dictionaries to support your arguments over words. But don’t use them to deny word status; instead use them to show whether or not a word has achieved enough usage to be considered part of the wider language. Remember: by the mere act of discussion you are furthering their use in the language, thus you might be undermining your own argument!

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