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What Does the Word “Word” Mean? Essay Example

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Merriam-Webster defines “word” as, in part, “a sound or combination of sounds that has a meaning and is spoken or written.” While that definition is correct as far as it goes, the explicit and implicit meanings of the word “word” go far beyond such a limited dictionary definition. The very concept of a “word” carries with it all the history of human culture; words are how we express ideas and emotions, how we communicate with other human beings. Depending on how it is used, a word can convey a very specific, individual idea or it can have broader connotations:  a word can be an exchange of ideas, as in “may I have a word with you?” It can also signal the end of an exchange of ideas, as in “that will be the last word on the subject.” The very concept of a “word” is at the core of all human communication. The rich history and the myriad of uses of the word “word” demonstrate that the development of words was the most significant achievement in human history.

There are other sources to find definitions for the word “word.” The website urbandictioanry.com notes that “word” is often used as an abbreviated form of the phrase “word is bond,” which is itself an abbreviation of the longer phrase “my word is my bond.” According to urbandictionary (and a significant number of other websites), the phrase “word is bond” has its origins in prison culture; in prison, one’s word may be the only thing of value he or she possesses. In this context, “word” is used as a promise or a declaration, as in “I will keep me word”. In broader popular culture, “word” has become a common slang term to express acknowledgement or agreement. In these uses, “word” is not just a group of sounds that conveys a specific meaning; it is a phrase that has moral and ethical implications.

Humans have been using words for tens of thousands of years, and language has gotten more complex over the centuries. The study of the history and uses of words is known as etymology, and given the richness of the history of words it is a field that can provide an endless source of material for research and study. In the 19th-century “The Study of Words,” author Richard Trench writes that “in worthy books are preserved and hoarded the treasures of wisdom and knowledge which the world has accumulated” (Trench, 1865, p9); a century later and the use of words has changed in ways that Trench could not have imagined. With technology such as iPads and cell phones, and platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, billions of people are writing billions of words every single day. It seems unlikely that Trench would deem much of what is written on Twitter to be “treasures of wisdom and knowledge,” but the fact remains that the way people use words has changed and evolved; if there are any treasures to be had in today’s words, it will more likely be buried in the files of some clod-based server than printed on paper.

The English word “word” is, like a great many English words, rooted in early- or proto-Germanic language. According to some sources, it is rooted in the early-Germanic wurdan, meaning “to speak” or “to utter” (odlt.org). The written word came along later than did oral language, and a significant number of words in the English language were passed down through oral traditions of Germanic, Celtic, and Norman cultures, all of which were rooted in an even earlier Paleo-Indo language (etymonline.com). The development of the written word exponentially expanded the ways and types of information that could be recorded, stored, and passed along.  The foundations of contemporary democratic societies are based on the premise of free and open speech and communication, again emphasizing the significance of words as a component of the human experience.

In the abstract, words are sounds or symbols that are used to represent objects, people, ides, and other subjects. In the concrete, words can hurt or heal; they can carry cultural, social, or ideological baggage, and they can often imply far more than the words themselves express. The manner in which we as speakers or writers choose some words or reject others is a reflection not just of the literal meanings of the words, but of how they may be interpreted –or misinterpreted. Some words fall out of favor over time, and some to be seen as inappropriate in most situations. Yet the words themselves have not changed; the only difference is in our relationship to those words. Language and words evolve and change over time, making words like living things whose environment is the entirety of human culture. And just when we think we have these creatures properly caged, they escape and begin to mean new things. The creation of this life form is what has allowed human culture and civilization to develop and sustain itself, making it the foundation of civilization and the most significant achievement in human history.

Works Cited

“ODLT dictionary definition of word.” ODLT – The Online Dictionary of Language Terminology. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Oct. 2013.

“Online Etymology Dictionary.” Online Etymology Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Oct. 2013.

“Word – Definition and More from the Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary.” Dictionary and Thesaurus – Merriam-Webster Online. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Oct. 2013.

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