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Arnold Zwicky complained yesterday about people who take dictionaries as defining rather than documenting the existence of words ("In the dictionary or not", 7/27/2008). But sometimes, people take their own reactions as definitive, even when dictionaries disagree. Writing on Saturday about Lito Sheppard's contract dispute with the Philadelphia Eagles, Les Bowen went with a linguistic lede:

Granted, "disappreciation" might not be an actual word, but it was what Lito Sheppard came up with to characterize the Eagles' handling of him yesterday, and, syntax aside, his point was clear.

Technically, the evaluation of wordhood belongs to lexicography or morphology, not syntax. But in fact, Lito's choice is sanctioned by the OED, on the authority of none other than Noah Webster.

Here's the OED's entry:

disappreciate, v.
trans. To regard with the reverse of appreciation; to undervalue.

1828 in WEBSTER; whence in mod. Dicts.

So disappreciation, the reverse of appreciation.

What Webster 1828 had was

DISAPPRECIATE, v.t. [dis and appreciate.] To undervalue; not to esteem.

And a quick search in Google Books shows that the nominalized from disappreciation has been used a couple of hundred times in print, as in this example from a collection of Prize Essays on the Expediency and Means of Elevating the Profession of the Educator in Society, published in 1839:

… it shows yet more pointedly than the instances of the fine arts and literature, that the case of the educator is not a solitary instance of a prevailing disappreciation for the most important offices in society, but that the same disappreciation attaches, in vulgar and gross minds, to everything that is not palpable to the senses, and tributary to the comfort or luxury of the material life.

So what's a journalist to do? If it's wrong to exclude a coinage like inartful on the grounds that it's not listed in dictionaries, why is it also wrong to exclude a form like disappreciation on the grounds that it's unfamiliar?

Here's Bowen's account of what Sheppard actually said,

Sheppard was asked if he found the situation stressful.

"No doubt," he said. "Especially when I feel like I should be getting treated a certain way, and [I'm] not. That shows a little 'disappreciation,' so to say."

Sheppard probably created disappreciation more or less on the spot, by combining dis- and appreciation, and he signals that the combined form isn't in common use by adding "so to say".  But English allows for regular morphological derivation of this kind — among the OED's senses for the prefix dis- is

9. With a substantive, forming a new substantive expressing the opposite, or denoting the lack or absence, of (the thing in question). Such are: disaffectation, disagglomeration, discare, discharity, discircumspection, disconcord, disgenius, dishealth, disindivisibility, disinvagination.

Many writers over the years — and probably many more speakers — have formed the new substantive disappreciation, just as Lito did. The result  happens to have been listed in the OED. But even if it weren't, that wouldn't make it "not an actual word". The English language allows morphological creativity, and pretending otherwise, even for the sake of a good lede, is discharity and discircumspection.

[Perhaps a copy editor like John McIntyre would have checked the dictionaries, and changed Bowen's opening sentence to something like "Granted, 'disappreciation' might be an unfamiliar word, but  it was what Lito Sheppard came up with to characterize the Eagles' handling of him yesterday, and, lexicography aside, his point was clear."  Or is this sort of thing viewed as a sort of journalistic version of poetic license? ]


  1. Abs said,

    July 28, 2008 @ 10:36 am

    'Or is this sort of thing viewed as a sort of journalistic version of poetic license?"

    This sort of thing meaning practically any comment involving language or statistics, ever?

  2. John Roth said,

    July 28, 2008 @ 11:33 am

    I'm puzzled. Maybe my personal dialect is different from other people's, but only the first two of the words in the OED's list sounds right – disaffection and disagglomeration – and my spellchecker complains about the second. Maybe there's another rule restricting the use of dis- further? Or possibly it's just that the other words have phrasal variants, such as ill health instead of dishealth?

    John Roth

  3. TootsNYC said,

    July 28, 2008 @ 11:43 am

    As a copyeditor, I allow words like "inartful"–they may not be in the dictionary, but they follow the conventions of the language, and they are clear. I call them "made" words (not to be confused w/ "made" members).

    And I make NO apologies for deciding unilaterally to allow or disallow them in my publication. Nor do I apologize for deciding not to allow a word that *is* in the dictionary if I think it's too obscure for my readership.

    On my publication, I have been given the top responsibility for word usage; I answer only to the editors I work with, and I aim to communicate clearly w/ my readers.

    Whether a word is in the dictionary is only one of the pieces of information I use to decide whether my word choice will be clear and effective.

  4. Mark Liberman said,

    July 28, 2008 @ 11:59 am

    @John Roth: maybe dishealth is no longer quite the thing, but it seems to have been used in medical writing in the past. If we insisted on substituting "phrasal variants" wherever possible, the existence of dictionary glosses would leave us in a state of infinite phrasal regress. And what spellcheckers do or don't complain about is a weak reed to lean on.

    What we're dealing with here is the lexicographic penumbra — the notion "is a word of English" doesn't have razor-sharp boundaries.

  5. Stephen Jones said,

    July 28, 2008 @ 12:18 pm

    As a copyeditor, I allow words like "inartful"–they may not be in the dictionary, but they follow the conventions of the language, and they are clear.

    Which explains why I haven't the least idea what it means.

  6. Andrew Pendleton said,

    July 28, 2008 @ 1:59 pm

    Could one argue that journalists should limit their words used to those commonly found in dictionaries not because the dictionary should be authoritative, but because readers should have a resource available to ascertain the meaning of words they read with which they are unfamiliar? In other words, if an editor did choose to include a non-dictionary word and a reader didn't know what it meant, what would their recourse be in figuring it out? Doesn't *this* provide some basis for the not-in-the-dictionary rule?

  7. John Laviolette said,

    July 28, 2008 @ 2:13 pm


    Well, "artful" means "full of art". Art in the sense of craft, in this case, so a better definition would be "crafty". And "in-" is a negating prefix, so "inartful" is "uncrafty" — another word that's not in every dictionary, and which bothers my spellchecker.

    Now, does "inartful" possibly have a further meaning to lawyers that we are unaware of? Possibly. Or maybe it just means that lawyers prefer negating words with "in-" to looking for postive suffixes like "-ful" and changing them to negative equivalents.

    And should we say "artless" instead of "inartful"? Maybe. It's a stylistic choice. But we certainly are able to break it down, or build up similar words in the same pattern. Words built from roots, prefixes and suffixes shouldn't be rejected because "they aren't in the dictionary," but because they don't fit the desired style, or are ambiguous.

  8. Tim Silverman said,

    July 28, 2008 @ 2:55 pm

    One of the meanings of "art" makes it pretty much synonymous with "skill". So "inartful" is formed in just the same way as "unskillful", and means more or less the same thing.

    "Artless" negates a very different sense of "art", implying artifice or conscious contrivance. So "inartful" means, more or less, "inept", but "artless" means, more or less, "naïve". These meanings are clearly related, but they are certainly not the same. Negating yet another sense of the word "art" gives us "inartistic", meaning something else again. More adjectives formed from yet more senses, "artificial" and "arty", do not seem to have established derived opposites, perhaps because they have some degree of implicit negativity in their meaning already. (The ordinary opposite of "artificial" is "natural"—in one of its several senses—while "arty" doesn't seem to have an opposite at all.

  9. TootsNYC said,

    July 28, 2008 @ 4:09 pm

    @ Andrew Pendleton

    You are right that this is one of the major reasons why good copyeditors will use, as an argument against the use of a word, the phrase "It's not in the dictionary." Because the reader who doesn't recognize it, couldn't even look it up.

    Or, they'd look it up, and see that it's not there, and they'd think we are idiots (because the reality is, most people think that if something is not in the dictionary, it's not a word, and an education person shouldn't use it).

    But the other reason is that dictionaries *do* reflect reality (good ones, anyway), and if a word is not in *frequent enough use* to have been detected by a lexicologist, then it is probably a niche word and not well known enough to be recognized by the average reader. (let alone the average bear)

    "Made" words, I believe, should fall outside of those concerns.

    And in fact, many dictionaries do indicate that commonly used words made by adding prefixes and suffixes are not included in the dictionary, for space reasons, because their meaning follows the rules ("in" means "not," and "artful" means "skillful") and most readers won't be confused.

  10. Nathan Myers said,

    July 28, 2008 @ 5:55 pm

    Let us not neglect such favorites as "disintermediation" and "antidisestablishmentarianism".

    If the chief value of "inartful" is its ill-definedness, then once it is defined precisely that vanishes in a puff of smoke, and the word must be replaced with another that may be hoped harder to agree on a definition for.

  11. dr pepper said,

    July 28, 2008 @ 7:23 pm

    My inner curnudgeon suggests that journalists should sprinkle their writings with uncommon words to force people to increase theur vocabularies.

  12. DonBoy said,

    July 28, 2008 @ 8:56 pm

    Hey, the original author just said that it might not be a word. You and I might say that he was using that form to assert that it's not word, but who can prove it?

  13. Walt said,

    July 29, 2008 @ 2:14 am

    I just had to look up disinvagination. Which led me to this link :


    After saying that disinvagination is not in the dictionary, it suggests that perhaps I meant "disinvagination". I suppose I did.

    Other suggestions were "dis invagination" and what I hope is not a Cupertino on some physician's report, "disneyfication".

    By the way, it means "removal of an invagination" [of course!]; (an invagination , it appears, is when something folds inward into a sheathed form.)

  14. Rob Gunningham said,

    July 29, 2008 @ 5:22 am

    Nathan Myers: If the chief value of "inartful" is its ill-definedness, then once it is defined precisely that vanishes in a puff of smoke, and the word must be replaced with another…

    Yes, Heisenberg talks about this somewhere — he is supposed to have been very well-read.

  15. Jane Hart said,

    July 29, 2008 @ 12:19 pm

    It seems to me that some people define the word 'word' to mean 'a single distinct meaningful element of speech or writing, used to form sentences with others' and other people define the word 'word' to mean 'a series of letters which has an entry in the OED'

    I, and the Compact Oxford English Dictionary (available free on line) subscribe to the former view. Although I have not paid to subscribe to the OED, I seriously doubt that its definition of the word 'word' differs greatly.

  16. Rob Gunningham said,

    July 29, 2008 @ 1:00 pm

    Yeah, but what about their definition of definition?

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