I had the pleasure of speaking at the User Assistance Conference in Edinburgh recently and spent one lunch time chatting with Professor Geoffrey K. Pullum, who is the Professor of General Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh and regular contributor to the Language Log. We were talking about whether or not ‘disambiguity’ was a real word. As you can imagine, he had much more thoughtful opinions on this than I did. Professor Pullum had an inkling that it wasn’t a proper word (although I think he kind of liked it anyway!)
Not long after lunch I received this email from the Professor that he had kindly allowed me to share with you because I know you’d be interested to know too!
I was not wrong: the entire 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary, which records every lexeme ever attested in 700 years of the history of the English language, has no entry for “disambiguity” at all.
It also isn’t in Webster’s, the greatest dictionary of American English (search it online at http://www.webster.com):
Your word, with its verb-restricted “dis-” prefix (as in disable, disabuse, disagree, disallow, disappear, disarm, disband, disbar, disbelieve, etc.) and its noun ending, is entirely your own invention.
Though I should note that a few nouns formed from dis- verbs are found.”Disability” is one that has the -ity suffix. So that is a sort of model, not in the sense that you did have it in mind, but in the sense that you could have done. It shows that forming such a word is not out of the question for English word formation principles. It’s just never been done before!
I’m fairly certain I’m not the first person to have ‘made up’ this word or that it’s ‘my word’, but I like it all the more after learning this little bit about it novelty. Linguists are cool.
My name is Leisa Reichelt. I am the Head of User Research at the Government Digital Service in the Cabinet Office.
I lead a team of great researchers who work in agile, multidisciplinary digital teams to help continuously connect the people who design products with the people who will use them and support experimentation and ongoing learning in product design.
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