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Lexicology is the study of the vocabulary of a language. Its etymology is Greek: lexis, ‘word’,
lexicos ‘of/for words’. Thus, the focus of Lexicology is on the idea of ‘word’. Here are some
definitions of this term.

Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (1984) ‘A speech sound or series of speech
sounds that symbolizes and communicates a meaning without being divisible into smaller
units capable of independent use’.

American Heritage Dictionary (1985) ‘A sound or combination of sounds, or its

representation in writing or printing, that symbolizes and communicates a meaning and may
consist of a single morpheme or of a combination of morphemes’.

Collins English Dictionary (1986) ‘One of the units of speech or writing that native
speakers of a language usually regard as the smallest isolable meaningful element of the
language, although linguists would analyse these into morphemes’.

To give a clear definition of the term ‘word’ is anything but simple. However, the following
features are important:1. the word is the main unit lexicology operates with 2. the word is the
basic linguistic unit of speech 3. the word consists of one or more morphemes 4. the word is
made of a speech sound/series of them (which have the function of phonemes) 5. the word is
made of a single base with different inflectional elements 6. the word cannot be divided into
smaller units that can be used independently 7. the word can fulfill a syntactic function on its
own 8. has at least one notional meaning 9. the word can be defined by taking into account:
its phonemic status, its morphological status (a unit of several morphemes/or a homonym to 1
morpheme), its syntactic status (capable to fulfill a syntactic function on its own), its semantic
status (a unit that has lexical meaning) 10. each word belongs to a specific word class or part
of speech; where a word appears in more than one class we regard them as separate words
(e.g. drink-verb/noun); we may even say that the term ‘word’ is defined by two factors: its
‘semantic nucleus’ and ‘the class’ to which it belongs.
A morpheme is a minimal unit of form and meaning; it is the smallest meaningful unit of
language. For example, in ‘Girls like dolls’ we can identify five morphemes
(girl+s+like+doll+s). Morphemes are divided into free morphemes (a free morpheme can
occur with or without other morphemes, e.g. driver, taking) and bound morphemes ( a bound
morpheme can occur only attached to a free morpheme, e.g. –er, -ing, -less, -ly, past, plural,
Accusative). We should also define the following terms: root, stem, base, inflectiona and
derivational morphemes.
A root is the ultimate irreducible element of a word; it is the constituent common to all
cognate forms; it is the element that remains after removing all inflectional endings. E.g.:
‘bind’ is the root of ‘bound/boundary/boundless/boundlessness’.
A stem is a root + a morpheme (which marks a change in the root), e.g. ‘bound’ is the stem in
A base can be the root of a word (‘bind’ in ‘binding’); the stem of a word (‘bound’ in
‘bounded’, ‘boundless/ness’); a combination of root or stem + derivational affixes, e.g.:
‘boundless’ in ‘boundlessness’.
Inflectional morphemes preserve the grammatical class of the free morpheme to which they
are attached, e.g. driver (noun) – drivers (noun).
Derivational morphemes may change the grammatical class of the free morpheme to which
they are attached, e.g. drive (verb) – driver (noun). Several derivational morphemes can be
added to a free morpheme, e.g. un-enthusi-ast-ic-al-ly.
Three important things have to be underlined:1.morpheme is characterized by its combinatory
power (a morpheme can be added to another morpheme) 2. a word does not have such a
combinatory power (nothing can be added/taken to/from it) 3. there is only a homonymy
between morphemes and words consisting of one morpheme.
Linguists have identified several types of words:
1. The orthographic word, i.e. the word described/understood in terms of alphabetic writing; it
is a visual sign with space around it; it may/may not have a standard form; e.g.: colour/color;
merry was once spelled myry, myrie, mery.
2. The phonological word, i.e. the word described/understood in terms of sound; e.g. a
notion/an ocean.
3. The morphological word the word described/understood in terms of form
4. The lexical word (aka lexeme, full word, lexical item, content word), i.e. the word
understood in terms of content (it relates to things, actions, states); in structure these words
are simple (cat) or composite (blackbird, put up with, Parkinson’s disease)
5. The grammatical word (aka function word, form word), i.e. the word in terms of syntactic
function; it helps to link lexical words; they have their own semantic systems: up and down
relate to position, direction, space, time; before in before the war means the same as pre- in
prewar; they can also function as affixes: she-goat, yes-man; e.g.: conjunctions, determiners,
pronouns, interjections.
6. The onomastic word is the word understood in terms of naming; these words establish
special/unique reference; these words are lexical; usually not listed in dictionaries. E.g.: John
(simple); Smithsonian (complex); Raging Bull (motivated).
7. The lexicographical word is the word understood in terms of dictionaries.
8. The translinguistic word, i.e. the word understood in terms of distinct languages in which
versions of the same form exist: reality, realite, realidad, realitate, realitas (In a sense these
words are not the same; they are words in separate languages. In another they are all the same
word, i.e. a high degree of textual continuity survives across linguistic divisions.
The term ‘word’ appears in a large number of expressions:
- base word (a word from which another is derived): sharp for sharpen
- buzz word ( a word used more to impress than inform): power breakfast
- compound word teapot
- hard word bathysiderodromophobia
- terms based on –ism: Americanism, malapropism (a similar sounding word is
substituted for another: pineapple for pinnacle).
- terms based on –onym (antonym, synonym)
- Terms that relate to form more that to meaning (abbreviation, acronym, blend)
- Terms that relate to social usage (anagram, palindrome –madam)
Linguists also mention:
1. Nonce words - the term was adopted in the preparation of OED (1884) ‘to describe a word
which is apparently used only for the nonce (on one occasion)’; it is a word coined on a
specific occasion; many are creations of individual writers, e.g. G.B.Shaw coined the word
‘bardolatry’ (worship of Shakespeare). Sometimes these words are used for jocular-sounding
words, e.g. nepotocracy, bananaphobia.
2. Cognate words - the term refers to words that have developed from a common ancestor, e.g.
mother (En) is cognate with Mutter (Ge), English is cognate with German; mama (Ro), madre
(Sp), mere (Fr) are cognates, they descend from the same mother tongue; fiu-figlio-fils-hijo
are cognates, they are related by descent.
Unrelated languages may have cognates: (En) tea and (Malay) teh have t’e (Chinese dialect).
3. False cognates/friends - a word that has the same or similar form in two or more languages
but different meanings in each: (Fr) sympathique (nice, pleasant) – (It) simpatico – (En)
sympathetic (compassionate, concerned); (En) cold –(Ge) kalt –(Sp)/(It) caldo (hot). There are
false friends inside a language: actual (real), present (gift), chemist (one who prepares and
sells medical goods), comfort (well being; but consolation), concert (musical entertainment;
but harmony, agreement), intelligence (intellect; but news, information).
4. Doublets - the term refers to two words which are historically from the same source; these
words are somehow different in form; these words may be used in different senses. E.g.:
human-humane, mood-mode, frail-fragile (from L. fragilis), moral-morale, balm-balsam.
We can also identify triplets: hotel-hostel-hospital.
5. International words - these are words easily understood without being deliberately learned;
they are words that are known at least in some languages; they are not words that circulate
through all languages. Their origin: La, Gr, Fr, It, Sp. E.g.: nouns: academy, dictionary,
economy, film, laser, radio, telephone, television, civilization; verbs: to describe, to terrorize,
to publish, to invent; adjectives: atomic, historic, glorious.


McArthur, T. (1998) Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language, Oxford:OUP