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:
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? ]