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Definition:

A speech sound or a combination of sounds, or its representation in writing, that symbolizes and communicates a meaning and may consist of a single morpheme or a combination of morphemes.

The branch of linguistics that studies word structures is called morphology. The branch of linguistics that studies word meanings is called lexical semantics.

See also:

Etymology:

From Old English, "word"

Examples and Observations:

  • "[A word is the] smallest unit of grammar that can stand alone as a complete utterance, separated by spaces in written language and potentially by pauses in speech."
    (D. Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2003)


  • "A grammar . . . is divided into two major components, syntax and morphology. This division follows from the special status of the word as a basic linguistic unit, with syntax dealing with the combination of words to make sentences, and morphology with the form of words themselves."
    (R. Huddleston and G. Pullum, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2002)


  • "We want words to do more than they can. We try to do with them what comes to very much like trying to mend a watch with a pickaxe or to paint a miniature with a mop; we expect them to help us to grip and dissect that which in ultimate essence is as ungrippable as shadow. Nevertheless there they are; we have got to live with them, and the wise course is to treat them as we do our neighbours, and make the best and not the worst of them."
    (Samuel Butler, The Note-Books of Samuel Butler, 1912)


  • "We should have a great fewer disputes in the world if words were taken for what they are, the signs of our ideas only, and not for things themselves."
    (John Locke)


  • "Words acquire new meanings because of changes in society, the desire for euphemism, the need to express intensification, the abbreviation of a longer expression, and the adoption of specialized terms into the general language."
    (S. Greenbaum, The Oxford English Grammar. Oxford Univ. Press, 1996)


  • "A man thinks that by mouthing hard words he understands hard things."
    (Herman Melville)


  • The Power of Words
    "It is obvious that the fundamental means which man possesses of extending his orders of abstractions indefinitely is conditioned, and consists in general in symbolism and, in particular, in speech. Words, considered as symbols for humans, provide us with endlessly flexible conditional semantic stimuli, which are just as 'real' and effective for man as any other powerful stimulus.

    "Take, for instance, the example of the World War! Would the men in the trenches have endured at all the horrors they had to live through if it had not been for words, and, neurologically speaking, because of the conditional s.r. [semantic reactions] connected with words?
    If any question why we died,
    Tell them, because our father lied.
    said the poet [Rudyard Kipling] truly, and experience shows it is not limited to the trenches."
    (Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, 1933)

    Rosencrantz: What are you playing at?
    Guildenstern: Words. Words. They're all we have to go on.
    (Gary Oldman and Tim Roth in Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, 1990)


  • Virginia Woolf on Words
    "It is words that are to blame. They are the wildest, freest, most irresponsible, most un-teachable of all things. Of course, you can catch them and sort them and place them in alphabetical order in dictionaries. But words do not live in dictionaries; they live in the mind. If you want proof of this, consider how often in moments of emotion when we most need words we find none. Yet there is the dictionary; there at our disposal are some half-a-million words all in alphabetical order. But can we use them? No, because words do not live in dictionaries, they live in the mind. Look once more at the dictionary. There beyond a doubt lie plays more splendid than Antony and Cleopatra; poems lovelier than the 'Ode to a Nightingale'; novels beside which Pride and Prejudice or David Copperfield are the crude bunglings of amateurs. It is only a question of finding the right words and putting them in the right order. But we cannot do it because they do not live in dictionaries; they live in the mind. And how do they live in the mind? Variously and strangely, much as human beings live, ranging hither and thither, falling in love, and mating together."
    (Virginia Woolf, "Craftsmanship." The Death of the Moth and Other Essays, 1942)


  • Word Word
    "Word Word [1983: coined by US writer Paul Dickson]. A non-technical, tongue-in-cheek term for a word repeated in contrastive statements and questions: 'Are you talking about an American Indian or an Indian Indian?'; 'It happens in Irish English as well as English English.'"
    (Tom McArthur, The Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford Univ. Press, 1992)
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