Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

When a Word Isn't a Word... Or Is It?

Hi! Hey! Ho! Yo! Ahem. Good day, ladies and gentlemen, umm, I'd like to address you today about the silly little words that we, umm, use without knowing if they're words or not: words like hey, hi, ho, yo, ahem, and umm. Here's hoping you don't find the topic ho-hum. (Oy, is anyone out there listening?)

A word is a vocal sound, spellable in letters, to which people have given meaning.

CHINA

—is a word, but:

CHONA

—isn’t a word, yet! If in time people give chona a meaning, then it will achieve wordhood.

Most word sounds have no particular connection to their meaning.

BOAT

—means a small vessel for water travel only because English speakers long ago agreed that’s what "boat" meant, not because the sound “bote,” suggests such a vessel any more than parten or stong would.

Many more words than you might think at first get their meaning because their sound imitates the sounds they describe: splash, thunk, fizz, howl, clippity-clop. Such onomatopoetic words say what they mean and mean what they say. Like alliteration and rhyme, onomatopoeia keeps writing's sound-meaning bond alive.

Then there's the quirky class of words that, in an odd way, are not words at all. Is oy a word? Oy, who can answer such a question? Splash is a word in such common use that we forget its onomatopoetic sense, especially when we use it metaphorically — "the new play made a splash on Broadway." But is splish a word? No, splish remains a sound, though it gets to be half a word when combined with splash: "Splish-splash, I was taking a bath." Likewise, "boom" is a onomatopoetic word that means an explosion that goes "Boom!", but we also use the word metaphorically — "the stock market boom" — and as a word with an un-onomatopoetic meaning: the boom of a sailboat. But "ka-boom"? That remains an almost word.

The official name for such almost-words is interjection — "an abrupt emphatic exclamation expressing emotion" says the Visual Thesaurus — and online I found lists of dozens of interjections from "ahhh" through "brr," "eek," "huh," "la-di-dah," and "phew," to "wow" "yikes," "yuck," and "zing." "Interjection" well describes how we stick these not-quite words in between real words, but the name is too long and Latinate to suggest their playful oddity. I propose we call them wiggle words for the dynamic way their specific/vague, sound/meaning combo wiggles its way into our brains.

The ubiquitous "umm" may be the most common of all wiggle words, and the one with the least meaning. We seldom write umm, and most often we don't notice when we say umm; we subconsciously squirt the sound as a vocal lubricant to keep our vocal flow going while we're searching for our next words. Lawyers and experienced public speakers train themselves not to say "umm" and, instead, dare to leave small silent pauses as needed. Getting rid of "umm" is like wiping the dust off a mirror: without its fuzzy, ummy layer, the spoken words come out with a crisper focus.

We use most wiggle words with conscious intent to communicate a meaning that's often one of surprising exactitude and subtlety. I sense, for example, a distinct difference between "tut tut" and "tsk tsk." We say both when we witness behavior we disapprove of, but I hear "tut tut,"'s disapproval as moral and weighty, whereas "tsk tsk"'s disapproval comes mixed with a humorous complicity: "Oh, you're naughty, but ooh, being naughty can be fun!"

"Wow!" means "I'm impressed." "Ugh," "yuck," and "ewww" all mean "Disgusting!" "Hmmm" means, "I'm not sure, give me time to think." "Argh" indicates angry frustration. "Duh" means "How stupid can you be?" "Duh," by the way, I'd call wiggle word slang, an interjection sprouted in the same fertile soil of TV and movies that gave us "bada bing bada boom" and "yada yada yada" over the past few decades. "La dee dah," once used sarcastically to mock upper crusty pretentiousness, was fading out of the language until revived by Woody Allen in his 1977 movie, Annie Hall. "Meh," meaning an indifferent reaction to something ("The soup? Meh, I wasn't crazy about it") became popular after comedian Larry David used it on his show, Curb Your Enthusiasm; now "meh" is replacing the older "ehnn." "Pshaw," on the other hand, goes back to the 17th century.

"Blah" indicates boredom, "boo" provokes fright. "Ta," which means everything from hello to goodbye to okay and is sometimes said "ta ta," has British cockney roots; "oo la la"'s roots are distinctly French. Men say "hubba hubba," "va va voom," and "yowsa yowsa" to indicate their appreciation of a good-looking woman, but I've never heard a woman use these wiggle words, nor do I know any equivalent that gals use when admiring a good-looking guy.

Wiggle words take us back to the mysterious origins of language. We humans, like many other animals, act on powerful impulses to express the thoughts or emotions we're experiencing at the moment. Whether we speak or gesture, it's all body language. "Yuck" means "disgusting" because in making the word sound we make the physical gesture of vomiting up something revolting. We could call wiggle words gestures on their way to becoming words, vocal equivalents of shrugging our shoulders or rolling our eyes. We can express indifference equally well with "ehnn" or "meh," or by holding out one hand at waist level and, with thumb and fingers slightly spread, rapidly tilting the hand's flat plane up one side, down the other side.

Wiggle words have the advantage of being both as precise as words and being less formal. Often we don't want to put our thoughts and emotions into writing where our words, in undeniable black and white, could be turned against us; likewise, we often don't want to put our feelings into words at all. Let's say you go to a movie with a friend, and your friend loves it and you hate it. What do you say when your friend gushes, "That was fabulous, didn't you think so?"

You could answer in words and say, "Frankly, Betty, I found it deadly dull, and your liking it makes me question your taste and our friendship." Or you could say, "Mehhhh" and leave it at that. Using the wiggle word might put a crimp in your friendship for a few days, but you two will get over it. Frankness, on the other hand, can be a killer. Unless you'd like to spend the rest of your days friendless and alone, I recommend "mehhh."

Gee, our time together is up, yikes, look how the time has flown! (Hmmm, did they like it? Hope so!) Ta ta! Bye-bye!


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Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday October 2nd 2012, 11:08 AM
Comment by: Roger B. (Lima Peru)
Awersome piece, Michael. I loved it!
Tuesday October 2nd 2012, 11:27 AM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
Billy Collins uncovers the Chinese origins of two splendid interjections:

From Despair:
...
I wonder what the ancient Chinese poets
would make of all this,
these shadows and empty cupboards?

Today, with the sun blazing in the trees,
my thoughts turn to the great
tenth-century celebrator of experience,

Wa-Hoo, whose delight in the smallest things
could hardly be restrained,
and to his joyous counterpart in the western provinces, Ye Ha.

Great post, Michael!
Tuesday October 2nd 2012, 9:45 PM
Comment by: Doug G. (CARROLLTON, TX)
fyi - Here is a wordlist for interjections found in VT:
http://www.visualthesaurus.com/wordlists/37762
Sunday October 7th 2012, 2:48 PM
Comment by: Meredith C. (Murfreesboro, TN)
This is a fun article and all I can say is that words or not, I use so many expressions that I couldn't stop using them no matter how hard I tried. I was an English teacher in a former life and love words and sounds even when they aren't legitimate. That might be too much to handle for some people who don't know me very well, but pshaw--they'll get over it.

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