So a bunch of people noted in yesterday's Ebonics thread that conversate wasn't a word, because it wasn't in the Oxford English Dictionary. Well, I had nothing better to do today, so I decided to call up the OED people and see if I could get an editor to talk to me. Jesse Sheidlower, Editor At Large for the Oxford English Dictionary, was nice enough to bring some knowledge to this most important subject.
Ta-Nehisi: So is conversate a word?
Jesse Sheidlower: Of course it's a word, the question is, is it acceptable. There are a lot of things that are acceptable in some situations, and not acceptable in others. "Table" is generally acceptable, but "ass" or "fuck" might not be, In some cases they would. It's the same for "hopefully" or "irregardless." They're all words, but it behooves us to be serious and ask, is it acceptable in this context? If you're delivering the State of the Union address, maybe "fuck" is not acceptable. If you're having sex with your girlfriend, maybe it is acceptable.
TNC: If a word isn't in the OED, does that mean it isn't actually a word?
JS: No, not all. No dictionary can include all words. The OED can only cover a small fraction of all the words out there. There's nothing official about the OED or any other dictionary out there. People sometimes think that it is, or pretend that it is. I think it's the most comprehensive and the best researched. But there are zillions of words that are not in the OED.
Our goal is to include things that are in widespread use. We don't care about things like whether they are acceptable, ungrammatical, or offensive. There are times when we have many, many words for the same concept. People say, "We don't need conversate, we have converse." Well then, we don't need hip because we have cool. We don't need illness because we have malady.
There are factors that we look at. They include how widespread something really is. How long has it been around? How broad is its use? A word that's in widespread use in many places is more likely to be included than a word that is only used in a small place but is widespread.
TNC: What fuels the notion that certain words aren't really words?
JS: There are a lot of different things. People feel that there is a certain kind of language that's appropriate and a certain type that isn't appropriate. And these judgments are based on many things--some may make sense, some might not. People take these things very seriously. People are told things about the language in school that are demonstrably untrue, and they think anyone who doesn't follow along with those beliefs is stupid or wrong.
Let me give you an example, in terms of looking at things historically. At the beginning of this conversation you pronounced the word "ask" as "aks." This is something that people often object to. People say it's the wrong pronunciation, and it's stupid. But if you look at the history of the English language, you can't tell if the correct pronunciation is "aks" or "ask." The "aks" pronunciation goes back 1000 years. It's in Beowulf. It's in Chaucer.
What happened was both were in use. But at some point, the dialect in which the "ask" pronunciation was used became dominant. But both continued and have been in use since then. When you look at America, the "aks" pronunciation is widespread in Southern American English. African-Americans used this because they were in the South--it's not especially African-American, but it's Southern.
Now, if you look at other Germanic languages, the "correct" pronunciation is, in fact, "ask"--but you can't tell that looking just at English and it ultimately doesn't matter. If I asked you to name the ordinal number between "second" and "fourth" you'd say, what?
JS: Right, third--but the old pronunciation is "thred," it comes from three. But if you were to say thred, you'd be considered a moron--even though it's "correct."
TNC: Will conversate be included after the next revision of the OED?
JS: It's very likely to go in.