A word for it

Zippy (once again) reflects on vocabulary:

The idea that everything has a name is widespread, but seriously mistaken, even if it’s understood as the claim that somewhere, at some time, someone has had a name specifically for the referent in question. If this were so, then little contests for suggesting words for things would have little point, but in fact they’re very popular, and only rarely do they unearth already existing words (even then, they tend to be nonce creations or expressions used only within a small circle of acquaintances).

When it turns out that there is, in some sense, a name specifically for this referent, that name is not an ordinary language expression, but a technical term in some domain, and of course it’s not widely known (otherwise, why would people be asking about it?). That means that words like aglet are interesting in an abstract sort of way, but not of much use in daily life, outside of discussions of shoelaces, shoes, and the like — and even there, unless you’re talking to people who are experienced in this domain, you’re going to have to explain the word.

Then there’s Griffy’s offering, “little plastic shoelace thingy”, which is not a name — not any sort of fixed expression — but a (rough) description of the referent.

When I talked about “having words/names for things” on Language Log some time ago, I restricted the discussion to “ordinary-language fixed expressions of some currency”, which is what people are really interested in when they ask whether a language has or doesn’t have a word for something.

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