January 30, 2012, by Stephen Mumford


The English language can be infuriating to the creative author. Sometimes it makes no sense. Specificity is a word. Unspecific is a word. One would seem entitled to conclude that unspecificity is a word. When I wrote it into a draft paper the other day, the Word programme gave me the tell-tale squiggly red underlining. The iPhone had a similar prohibition on my perfectly logical construction. It’s not a word.

Of course I could have used some near-synonyms. Vagueness, perhaps, or fuzziness. Philosophy often requires precision, however, and neither of those seemed quite right for what I wanted to convey. We often look for the degree to which something is specific: its specificity. But it’s sometimes interesting to note that things can have a degree to which they are unspecific. Obviously this should be known as unspecificity.

I have a complete Oxford English Dictionary in my office and unspecificity is not contained therein. It’s a few years old but a search on the online version also drew a blank. Perhaps I am entitled to use the non-word as a technical term of art. Philosophers have many of those, like supervenience or supererogatory. But unspecificity seems so obviously a word that it shouldn’t have to be classed as technical vocabulary.

We sometimes speak of a living language and all languages in current use are alive in this sense. They grow and evolve. The dictionary doesn’t just prescribe usage but also describes it. Latin may be dead, in the sense that it is no longer used outside academic circles. But when a language is in use, its speakers are using it as a tool of communication and thought. They are perfectly entitled to adapt the tool to their needs just as I might recalibrate a wrench. New words pass into common usage and eventually are picked up by the compilers of the OED. Some words change their usage over time and the dictionary-makers eventually succumb. Remember when dice meant only the plural? And it’s sad to say that some words fall out of usage completely. Their study can be fascinating, however.

I am now feeling a bit more relaxed about unspecificity. It makes such good sense that it seems only a matter of time before it proudly takes its place between unspecific and unspeckled. It doing so will depend on how we treat it. The social nature of language means that I alone have no power to make it a word. But if it becomes part of common usage among a community of speakers, then such status would have to be bestowed. Such is the process of wordification.

Posted in English Studies