Tag Archives: what is a word

What is exactly a “Word”?

Call any translation agency. Chances are you will be told that they charge X cents a word.

We all have a pretty good any of what a word is. We use the sound “word” everyday and speak words from the moment we get up in the morning to the extent that few people have ever wondered what a word exactly is.

Since, like any other translation bureau, Express International Translation Inc. charges by the word, it would not be superfluous to ask oneself what a word exactly is.

Simple? No. Open the Tenth Edition of the Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, which is my English dictionary of reference, to “word”. You get an embarrassingly long list of definitions from of varying complexity ranging from “something that is said” to “any segment of written or printed discourse ordinarily appearing between spaces or between a space and a punctuation mark” (got that?)

More simply put, a word is a standalone that designates an action (verb), a condition (adjective), an acronym or something concrete or abstract. Furthermore, to each action or thing, be it concrete or abstract, corresponds one or more words (synonyms).

Does this necessarily mean that every word has a meaning? No. Articles (“the” “a”) are standalones but have no meaning.

Other words that lose their meaning lose that meaning when adjoined to another word. We all know what “ice” is; it is frozen water. We know what cream is. However, ice-cream is neither ice, nor cream.

Ice cream is a case in point for another reason? It has one meaning – that delicious summer treat – but is written is two words. So, it counts as two words. But I can also write it as one word: ice-cream.

To complicate matters a little more, a word in the translation industry is slightly at variance with what linguist call a word because the industry counts numerals as words. Take for example a birth date such 18/08/1957 (a date of birth). We count it as a word because the translator would have to type it in the target document or even “translate” it if the document is meant for a country where the month usually precedes the day like it is often the case in North America (in which case we would have 08/18/1957. Also, “1” standing alone would be considered a word as well as a googol (a googol is a very large number consisting of 100 digits or more).