What words come to mind…(by Sumanthra Govender)

Not long ago, I was watching an episode of a popular American talk show. The host took issue with a word that a colleague used; the word was socialist. The host commented on how some words have become “buzzwords”. Merriam Webster’s Dictionary provides two different definitions for “buzzword”: 1. an important-sounding usually technical word or phrase often of little meaning used chiefly to impress laymen, and 2. a voguish word or phrase. Buzzwords are socially and culturally dependent and can be domain specific. In this particular instance, the host commented that socialist and other words like liberal and feminist are being diluted, changed, or skewed to suit a current political agenda. People are throwing these words and other words around so freely like simple catchphrases, without truly knowing their meaning. In many ways, I have to agree. The words of the day are taking on so many different uses apart from the original intentions that at times it’s hard to keep up with the shifts. Many terms are simply being overused and overgeneralised to suit blanket perspectives or agendas. This made me wonder about how people define words, more specifically how “well” they know the buzzword(s) of the time.

This, surprisingly, brought me back to my M.A. thesis: Four Levels of Native-likeness: a new method of assessing learner lexicons . The focus was on vocabulary acquisition. Specifically, I was investigating depth of word knowledge through word associations. Word associations are popular to use because it of how easy they are to administer: participants are presented with a cue or target word and are asked to respond with the first word that comes to mind. Their responses are interpreted as providing insights into the structure or organization of their mental lexicon—their mental dictionary. Their responses are also assumed to reveal the strongest links between words in their mind.

Without getting too bogged down in the nitty-gritty, my study was a replication study of, Dr. Norbert Schmitt’s study Quantifying word association responses: what is native-like? In his study, Schmitt created the original multiple words association task, assessment scheme, and compiled a norm list of native speaker responses. I wanted to use his word association task to tap into how well people, specifically ESL students, knew low-frequency polysemous words in English. The purpose was to see if ESL learners would produce word associations similar to—or “typical” of—native speakers. However, in this study, the language learners were asked to provide 3 responses to target words. Their responses were then compared to the norm list of responses from 100 native English speakers who also provided 3 responses to the same target words. Rather than reducing their one-word responses to an overgeneralization of being native-like or non-native-like, multiple responses allowed me to see development in their understanding, interpretation, or assumptions about word meaning in comparison to native speaker responses. The interpretation of the results was a departure for vocabulary acquisition research because it gave an impression of how well learners know some of the words they are learning in their additional language rather than how many words a learner knows.

This mini-flashback to that study has made me wonder what word associations people would produce for some today’s buzzwords or catchphrases. How common are the responses and what are the responses reflecting? In other words, are the responses reflecting the meaning of the word, or an impression of the word based on its use in real time or through socio-cultural experiences? Vocabulary acquisition and use is a dynamic process, and while there is a constant change in the way words are “stored” in a mental lexicon, it should also be noted that this change is impacted by the world and experiences surrounding a person.

Every year, Merriam Webster, Oxford, Cambridge and many other dictionaries reveal a word or words of the year. For Oxford Dictionary, the word of 2018 was “toxic”. For Merriam Webster, the word was “justice”. Cambridge dictionary’s word was …wait for it… “nomophobia”. These words and all words have what is believed to be  “typical” meaning(s)—in other words, accepted dictionary meaning(s). However, language knowledge, word knowledge, is not simply a regurgitation of typical dictionary entries. The words we use are a reflection of what is happening in the world around us and in the communities we huddle in.

A colleague of mine recently gave a workshop in one of my classes on concordancing, and she noted that unlike French, English has no “academy” or “body” to help navigate or rein in the ebbs and flows of lexical change that are regularly and at times effortlessly put into use. My BILD colleague, Caroline Dault, elaborated on this point by adding “that In Quebec the Quebec Board of French Language / Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF) has been quite active in coining novel words or phrases, for example infonuagique instead  of cloud-computing, but it has a hard time putting them into use.” Over time, English words are going to adapt simply because they are a reflection of what English speakers do with the words and how they actually use them. Thus, it’s important for us to be critical thinkers about the words we use and how they are being used by others.

So I ask you, dear reader of this post, what are the first three responses that come to mind when you see the following words?






Put your responses in the comment section. Let’s see what we’re all coming up with. No answer is incorrect, atypical or non-native-like. Your response is your reflection.


Govender, S. (2002) Four levels of native-likeness: a new method of assessing learner lexicons. Retrieved from https://spectrum.library.concordia.ca/1686/

Schmitt, N. (1998). Quantifying word association responses: what is native-like? System26(3), 389-401.

Images by ENG

3 thoughts on “What words come to mind…(by Sumanthra Govender)

  1. Neutral – fair; even; pH

    Water – clear; drink; trickle

    Toxic – Britney; danger; poison

    Fake – news; real; con

    Justice – law; judge; trial

  2. Neutral : Gender, beige, impartial

    Water : Pollution, flow, bottle

    Toxic : Masculinity, waste, chemicals

    Fake : News, truth, fallacious

    Justice : Injustice, judge, trial

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