When Is a Word a Word? (Or a Drinking Fountain a Bubbler?)

I spent this past weekend in Michigan’s beautiful Upper Peninsula, enjoying the trees and the fresh air (and adding a few pieces to my wardrobe at art fairs and consignment shops).11781736_10154309742148849_8790195151870082653_n I love the UP, and I’ve been spending time there—usually during the summer and holidays—ever since I was little. However, until last year, I had never given much thought to the term “yooper”: I always knew it and simply accepted it as a word (it’s simplest definition is a resident of the UP). It wasn’t until “yooper” was officially added to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary that I realized that not everyone was always in agreement that it was, in fact, a word.

So what makes a word a word? This is something I like to think about—and at least for me—I think that if we’re using it and other people are understanding it then it may as well be a word. But what does it mean for a word to be officially added to a dictionary? I certainly don’t use “yooper” any more frequently—or differently—than I was previously doing.11760091_10154307483243849_9181890055321910806_n

While looking at a variety of articles to refresh my memory about how “yooper” entered the dictionary, I saw that this didn’t happen quickly. There was a ten-year endeavor to see the word added. Another article, this one from the USA Today, says a few things about the dictionary’s editorial staff and their processes—this particular article also gives us some of the other words that joined the dictionary with “yooper” last year: a couple of my favorites are “fangirl” and “steampunk.” And listen to what an amazing job description this is: “Merriam-Webster relies on a network of observers who track down word usage, and then a few senior editors make the final cut.” While I don’t think that a word needs to be in the dictionary to be a word, I would still love to do this!

I’m not a yooper myself, though both of my parents grew up in the UP and I have a great affinity for the place.11800138_10154309741828849_6979760948637470924_n I’m from Wisconsin, and since we’re talking about words, I want to mention a particular word that I always associate with growing up in the Milwaukee area. That word is “bubbler,” and even though I think that it is less prevalent than “yooper,” it’s one that I actually use more frequently. For the uninitiated, a bubbler is a drinking fountain, as in, “Could you tell me where the bubbler is? I’d like some water.”

Interestingly, there still seems to be some debate about how this name came to be. I was doing a bit of research, and read an article from May of this year that discusses how some of an earlier article might be accidental misinformation. In short, the real reason for the name might just be that a “bubbler” is the name that plumbers give the part of the drinking fountain that bubbles.

But much like “yooper,” I had never given much previous thought to “bubbler”: it was simply a part of my vocabulary. When I’m out in public and looking for a place to fill my water bottle, sometimes I’ll catch myself and say “drinking fountain” instead, but I more often find myself explaining to someone what a bubbler is and why that is my word for it.

Last week, I mentioned a plan to write about capes (and wraps and shawls and ponchos), but the weather was so warm this weekend that it was difficult to muster the necessary enthusiasm. I do plan to return to these ideas about words though, particularly regarding what makes a cape a cape. One of the reasons that I find grammar—and words—so endlessly fascinating is that our usage changes and there is no end of things to talk about. Heartfelt thanks as always for reading, and I’ll see you again next week!

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