Sunday, October 21, 2007

When is a word really a real word?

My other half asked me to "go librarian" this week to help him settle a real-life Scrabble challenge type of situation:

Matt heard a word he'd never heard before, used by someone who swore that the word was a real word. Of course, the only way to settle such a debate is to look up the word in a dictionary ... but does it have to be the "real" dictionary? Does a slang dictionary count?

The debated definition: "wenis" as the skin around your elbow.

This was a new definition for me, too. I remember "wenis" as an early '80's playground word, somewhere between "dorkus" and "butthead" in the family of vaguely anatomical kid-on-kid slurs.

But apparently Matt's wenis-as-elbow-skin friend is not alone. The user-generated slang source Urban Dictionary is chock-full of witnesses to this usage (often under the variant spelling "weenis"). And a quick Google of "wenis +elbow" shows at least 700 other people trying to verify this usage.

So does that mean it's a real word? In my reference librarian/ armchair linguist opinion, yes -- lots and lots of evidence points to plenty of people using "wenis" to talk about the skin on their elbows (don't ask me why). And, remember, in Scrabble, if all the players agree that a word's in common usage, it doesn't matter if it isn't in the dictionary. Yet.

For more about words' journeys to the dictionary, check out the Dictionary Evangelist blog from Erin McKean who (I can't resist!!) gave a great TED talk about the future of dictionaries:

1 comment:

Patrick said...

I like your blog, I wish you posted more often. (hint, hint). :)