NonWords


Sometimes the sounds we speak or the signs we scratch on paper cause eyes to be raised, and we say "What's wrong with that?" but it turns out we've uttered a nonword, one that is a misspelling or mispronunciation or misderivation of a correct word.

In other cases, a word pops into use, seeming to have mutated from an older version, and begins to ruthlessly crowd out the parent form.

administrate
This backformation from administration can block the customary and honorable administer.
commentate
This backformation from commentator is already accepted in usage, but it means we will soon be hearing about someone's commentations instead of comments, and we will talk about someone's commentatorly manner.
dimunition
The incorrect spelling reflects the strong attraction of the suffix -ition, and the unfamiliar sound of the -ution suffix. The correct spelling and pronunciation is diminution, reflecting a derivation from diminish.
druthers
This is a familiar word, used in phrases like "If I had my druthers...", where it means "If I had my preferred choice". The word presumably comes from a slurred form of "I'd rather".
exploitative
Despite the suggestive influence of the word exploitation, the corresponding adjective is exploitive.
heighth
Formed by analogy with length and width, but unfortunately we already have the perfectly good and standard word height! I stopped myself once, as I was describing the "heighth and width" of some object and thought "What did I just say?" and then I thought "It sounds wrong, but why?".
illionths
For a person who doesn't know the precise word, or doesn't expect his audience to know it, a "jillion" or "kazillion" or "kabillion" expresses the idea of "very big". Now, because computers often reference the very small, we have corresponding make-words:
"At beige terminals, sixteen cryptanalysts quietly crunched numbers, spitting out results in illionths of a second."
James Bamford, "Body of Secrets".
inventative
I made up this word to show the absurdity of preventative, and then I discovered that many people use this instead of the correct inventive, so now this word's in jail too!
irregardless
The correct word is regardless.
miniscule
This incorrect spelling comes by an incorrect derivation from mini; the correct spelling is minuscule and the correct derivation is from minus.
nother
Isn't in the dictionary, but should be, but that's a whole nother story.
orientated
The correct word is oriented. When you're lost, you become disoriented, not disorientated.
preventative
The correct word is preventive, unless a person who makes lots of inventions is inventative. I thank my friend and roommate, the future Dr Kirk Nelson for rubbing my nose in this one after I thought I had corrected his application to medical school as I was typing it up!
societal
Here's a word that you'll find defined as a proper word; but I think it is an illegitimate and unneeded monster that satisfies the needs of people who prefer an extra mystifying syllable or two in their vocabulary where possible. Occasionally, I can see where you might prefer to discuss a "societal disease" rather than a "social disease", but I'd recommend you discuss "a disease of society" instead. The word "social" does have double duty in common use, of course, and this may really be why "societal" popped up. We tend to mean "close and personal" when we use the word "social". But now that we are all experts on society and its woes, we want to reserve "social" for our happy world, and use "societal" for our discussion of the mostly fictitious creation of our common imagination that we call "society". I still hate the word, despite this explanation.
til
You will be told in all solemnity that til is not a word, that it is not an acceptable contraction or backformation from until and that the appropriate word is till. If that makes sense to you, go with it! This is a "nonword" that I happen to like.
undoubtably
The correct word is, presumably, undoubtedly.


Last modified on 18 January 2013.