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JAN FREEMAN

What's in a word

"Is gotten even a word?" demands reader Bruce Karger of Pittsburgh, challenging my recent use of the phrase gotten smarter. "My many teachers and my mother from Massachusetts would have said 'there is no such word.'"

Naggers was the key word in a "South Park" episode earlier this month, but a Wikipedia entry about the show commented that naggers was "not a real word according to the dictionary," because it "does not have a plural form."

"Teachers are learning that they should be bonused for the scores of their students," said Keith Ablow on the "Today" show last week. Tsk-tsk, said Cheryl Johnson in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune: "Bonused is not a word."

What strange impulse is it that tempts people to deny the existence of words they have just seen or heard in use, doing the job that words do? Plenty of people disdain gas guzzlers and green plastic footwear, but they don't try to tell you that Hummers and Crocs aren't real.

And yet, all over the Web, self-appointed executioners are vaporizing words, with varying degrees of assurance and even contempt. "English major here: there is no such word as spelt," says a helpful commenter who needs a dictionary and a couple of British friends.

"Even a mediocre writer knows that there is no such word as weaved," says another maven, unaware that weaved is not only centuries old but preferred in some senses: "The officers weaved in and out of traffic."

Sometimes, of course, such people simply mean that a word should be avoided because it's widely considered nonstandard English, like irregardless, theirselves, or boughten. Nonstandard is not the same as nonexistent, but you can see that English teachers might resort to hyperbole in hopes of wiping those lowbrow locutions from their pupils' mental slates.

And it's understandable that newer words -- especially if they look like jargon -- meet resistance. The people who say synergize, monetize, deliverables, and the like aren't "real words" don't actually expect economists to stop using monetize; they just want the term securely locked up in the financial ghetto.

Then there are the people who only want to say, as rudely as possible, that a word has been misspelled: "There's no such word as sufferage," they sniff. Still others don't know (or don't care) that their preference is local, not universal, so they rule licenced, towards, and orientate out of order.

But plenty of mysteries remain. Where would an English speaker come up with the notion that cleverer, addicting, or hearable is "not a word"? Or that gentlewoman (dated to 1230 in the Oxford English Dictionary), oared (synonymous with rowed since 1410), ironical (1576 -- it's older than ironic), resubjugate (1864), and twinkly (1884) aren't part of the language?

One such anonymous rule-monger, a few years ago, actually bullied the Guardian into a correction (or "incorrection," as William Safire has called it) over a line about "one of the world's most important troves of artifacts." The newspaper followed up with an absurd apology: "There is no such word as 'troves' in English. The noun 'treasure-trove' describes a find of valuable articles, the second part of the compound word being derived from the French verb trouver, to find."

True, so far as the etymology goes. But that French trouve long since became an English noun: It means "a store of valuable or delightful things," says the Oxford Concise, and newspapers everywhere use the plural troves.

And what about bonused, naggers, and gotten, our current complaints?

Bonus as a verb is first cited in 1886, and bonused is a Canadian synonym for "subsidized." The word is gaining ground, especially in sports and sales lingo, to mean "given a bonus," but it's still a buzzword (though not a nonword).

Nagger, of course, has a plural, as other Wikipedians soon determined; the original poster must not have realized that many dictionaries don't list regular plurals.

As for gotten, it's an aged and respectable past participle. "The notion that gotten is an illegitimate 'nonword' has been around for more than two hundred years," says the American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. But "both got and gotten go back to the Middle Ages," though the British have abandoned gotten.

And yes, get may be used to mean become, notes Bryan Garner, even though "some pedants have contended that get must always mean 'to obtain.'" If one of those pedants is your mother, well, no doubt you'll be careful what you say at home.

But out in the wide world, people get sunburned, get tired, and get lost. They also get bonused and resubjugated and orientated. We're all free to avoid such usages, of course, and even to call them ugly. But anyone who says they aren't "words" needs to recheck the meaning of the word word.

E-mail Jan Freeman at freeman@globe.com. For the Word blog, go to boston.com/ideas/brainiac/word.

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