Skip to navigation – Site map

HomeSupplementsBook reviews2024Laura Wright, The Social Life of ...


Laura Wright, The Social Life of Words: A Historical Approach

Wiley Blackwell, 2023, 224 pages
Nicholas Lo Vecchio
Bibliographical reference

Laura Wright

The Social Life of Words: A Historical Approach. Oxford, Wiley Blackwell, February 2022. ISBN: 9781119881032, Price: $44,95, 224 pages | ebook: ISBN: 9781119881056, Price: $36.

Full text

1In The Social Life of Words, Laura Wright articulates a “lexical sociolinguistics” by applying recent sociolinguistic theories to the historical study of the lexicon. In doing so, the author compellingly demonstrates how lexical variation may be explained upon the basis of social structure – similarly as for any language feature susceptible to variationist analysis, here with a qualitative philological methodology novel for the field.

  • 1 See Kabatek [2023] for a recent contextualization of Coseriu’s theories, fundamental to Romance lin (...)
  • 2 Note that Wright does not use the terms lexicology or lexicological in the book.

2Though the English language is the object of study (other languages are engaged insofar as they inform English words, or vice versa), its approach would benefit lexicological research in other languages as well. The English-language context also situates the work’s theoretical underpinnings and circumscribes its chief innovation. Wright’s introduction describes the book as “the first systematic attempt at applying sociolinguistic approaches developed over the last half-century to the lexicon” [5] – surely an accurate description for Anglophone, and especially North American, sociolinguistics, although it should be noted that not all scholarly traditions have been so reticent to study the lexicon in its social aspects, or even to study it at all. Uncomplicated attention has long been paid to socially conditioned lexical variation within European Romanistik studies of Coserian inspiration (i.e., variational approach),1 not to mention dialectology. Throughout the book Wright cites valuable scholarship on the historical English lexicon. Yet, with a few exceptions, lexicology2 as a discipline must still be described, to say the least, as “underdeveloped” (Lutzeier [2002: 6]; cf. Lipka [1992: 1, 187]) and attention paid to it in Anglophone variationist sociolinguistics remains extremely minimal. Durkin [2012: 3] went so far as to call the lexicon a sociolinguistic “Cinderella” – “excluded from the ball” – a cannily apt analogy suggesting that a lexis-free theorization of natural language might be destined to approach the status of fairy tale.

  • 3 A point worth emphasizing as the gap between availability of digital resources for English vs. othe (...)

3This situation is characterized in the brief preface to the book by David Hornsby, now editor of the Language in Society series of which The Social Life of Words is the forty-third installment. There, Hornsby states that the book “marks out for future scholars an entirely new approach to language change,” calling the lexicon “this most problematic of linguistic domains” [x]. Why is the lexicon so problematic? Hornsby explains that it represents “an area from which sociolinguists have too often recoiled in the past, focusing instead on phonological or grammatical variables which lend themselves more readily to quantitative analysis” [x]. For the author’s part, Wright also points to quantitative factors in attempting to explain the lack of disciplinary interest, though from a different angle [4-5, 10, 12]: less in terms of data analysis itself, more in terms of the quantity of corpus data available. So Wright attributes recent lexicological progress – enabling the research in this book – to the massive digitization and online access of textual data, arguing that “in the pre-internet age” answers to sociolinguistic questions about words “could not be answered” [4]. These arguments, assuming quantitative imperatives in terms of accessible data and its analysis, do not entirely convince if we consider that, on the one hand, corpus lexicometry is nothing new and dictionaries have used it for decades, though it has by now reached extreme levels of sophistication (not to say heuristic value – I will return to this point); and, on the other hand, a lexical sociolinguistics ought to be possible also for languages or lects without the enormous digital data sets uniquely available for standardized English.3

  • 4 Some good examples for English are found in the special issue introduced in Durkin [2012]; see also (...)

4Other linguists have offered similar methodological explanations to account for lexical inattention. Durkin [2012: 4-6] points to the “infinitely extendible” and semantically “unpredictable” nature of a language’s lexicon, distributed between a shared core vocabulary and constantly renewing vocabularies variable down to the idiolectal level, with both synonymy and polysemy complicating systematic study. In another important new book problematizing the lexicon in sociolinguistics – though from a very different angle compared to Wright’s – Geeraerts and colleagues’ Lexical Variation and Change: A Distributional Semantic Approach (2024) addresses the matter as well. Noting the “peripheral status” and “relative neglect of lexical variation in variationist sociolinguistics,” the authors argue that the main problem derives from the fact that “words have meaning even before they acquire social meaning”; and since sociolinguistics “describes the socially meaningful association between linguistic and social variables,” the “presence of this primary level of meaning complicates the sociolinguistic perspective” (Geeraerts et al. [2024: 21], also see [2024: 30-31]). Surely the reasons cited by Hornsby, Wright, Durkin, and Geeraerts all contribute to explaining the extraordinary lexical oversight within some linguistic traditions (Durkin [2012: 4], notes the reasons could fill a whole volume), but it is hard to escape the impression that they point much more to a lack of disciplinary will than insurmountable methodological obstacles – the longtime lexicological work by three of these authors offers some proof otherwise.4

  • 5 While in principle oral corpora could obviously be used to study the lexicon, their relatively tiny (...)

5To the methodological explanations I would add a more epistemological one: the idealization, inherited from structuralism and long maintained, that “real” or “authentic” language use is supposedly restricted to spontaneous oral productions studied in synchrony (Blommaert [2013: 441]; Androutsopoulos [2016: 288]). Such a bias simultaneously dismisses the study of written discourse and, for the same reason, delegitimizes diachronic investigation – both of which are fundamental to lexicology. While it is possible to envision synchrony-focused lexical study, the nature of the lexicon ultimately demands an inherently diachronic approach (see Buchi & Dworkin [2019: §§ 1, 3]) – even where neology is the object of study, with neologizing practices representing a dynamic hinge point between system structure and speaker agentivity (on the tension between the latter, see Bell [2016: 399-401]). “Words in use today are contingent on how speakers used them in the past, with their activities, inventions, attitudes, and experiences influencing their meanings,” notes Wright [12] – a basic enough point, though reassuring to hear stated so candidly. An idealized purely synchronous sociolinguistics of oral discourse essentially surrenders any possibility of meaningful lexical study.5

  • 6 Generally on further integrating the written code and mediatization into sociolinguistics, see Blom (...)

6Recent theoretical work has grappled with problems posed by anti-writing biases within linguistics – rendered obviously untenable in the digital age in which so much discourse is mediatized. If Koch and Oesterreicher [2001] already provided a powerful explicative model that complexified the oral-written dichotomy to more adequately account for sociopragmatic context, within the past decade a number of other reflections in English have usefully prompted a reckoning, notably about limitations posed by phonocentrism.6 Mediatized discourse may be the source of lexical creation, in part but not only the reflection of orality, and – more pertinently here, as Wright observes [6, 31, 122-127, 134, 148-149, 151, 162]—a very substantial source of lexical dissemination at the diasystemic level across a given society, and across language boundaries. Now that the study of mediatized discourse is being more sufficiently theorized as a sociolinguistic, rather than merely philological, problem, a further step is to consider some logical corollaries. If it is theoretically permissible to mine social media, internet forums, TV shows, and all the rest for socially significant language data, the same standard must apply to the historical textual documentation. Wright’s timely book is the occasion to reflect on whether a more “mature” or “comprehensive” sociolinguistics (Blommaert [2013: 442]) that problematizes the written code is also more amenable to an unproblematic study of the lexicon.

  • 7 Geeraerts et al. [2024: 17, 25] use “variational lexicology” and “sociolexicology”; Grondelaers, Sp (...)
  • 8 See Geeraerts et al. [20248-17] on how prototype theory has helped to bring speakers’ encyclopedi (...)

7One main theoretical interest of a lexical sociolinguistics – or a sociolexicology, in the terminology I and others7 have variously used – may be to emphasize that there are no default lexemes to name entities in the world, whether more concrete or more abstract. As any translator above all knows, words do not match up to things in the world. The essence of distinctions among named entities does not necessarily, or only, reside in the properties of things, but also in the socially conditioned experience of the people who talk about those things in given contexts, and governed by the spaces, the bodies, the sociopolitical hierarchies and ideologies bounding their existence.8 Wright is consistently good at arguing how what distinguishes (near-)synonymous lexemes is not so much semantic as it is social [54, 73, 104, 119, 143, 151]. Whether or not any given instance of an individual word is socially or pragmatically marked matters less than the fact that “all words may have been imbued with social values at some points in space and time” [178, see also 6].

8The Social Life of Words, relatively compact at two hundred pages, is transparently structured. The introduction (notated “I”) and the conclusion (Chapter 10) lay out general theoretical and methodological principles, with directions for future research in the latter. Each of the nine main chapters (1 to 9) follows the same “blueprint” [11]: a brief introduction to the theoretical issues is followed by discussion of previous scholarship, before moving on to concrete case studies of word histories exemplifying the theme, then closing with a short summary and bibliography. While each chapter has a specific thematic focus, the topics are cross-cutting, such that each may inform the case studies in other chapters. Some of the theoretical frameworks are typically sociolinguistic in scope: social network theory [Ch. 1], communities of practice [Ch. 2], indexicality and enregisterment [Ch. 7]. Others cover principles of lexical semantics from a social perspective: polysemy [Ch. 3], onomasiology [Ch. 4], prototypes and stereotypes [Ch. 5]. The chapter on spatial spread [Ch. 8] draws on geolinguistics, also compatible with cognitive approaches. Two complementary chapters – on language regard [Ch. 6] and lexical appropriation [Ch. 9] – ask how speaker awareness and language attitudes affect lexical use.

9Chapter 9 has specific importance in concretely laying out the author’s basic methodology. There, Wright synthesizes all nine main chapters as she walks readers through each step to bring together the various themes. The process naturally begins with “amass[ing] what is already known about the word” [164] starting in dictionaries and then expanding outward. The author’s approach implicitly evidences a critical metalexicographical stance by noting, for example, where OED entries have not yet been updated or can be antedated through the author’s own research. After all, the point of the book is that there is a great deal of social word history the dictionaries have not yet told: “dictionaries do not explain the social dimension—what kind of person used these words, when and where” [1].

10The lexical analyses substantiate the author’s assertions that “all kinds of texts merit scrutiny” [5] and that “no lexeme is too rare to merit sociolinguistic enquiry” [10] – fundamental lexicological principles, in fact, that cannot be stressed enough. The case studies amount to a heterogeneous nomenclature of words, some of which may be unfamiliar to English-speakers, including specialists. The following list gives an idea of some of the varied curiosities under study: geyser, Califont, Ascot, Swiss waiter, sosison vo land (and other obscure fireworks terminology), Etna, laugh (discourse function), maroon, popcorn, direction vs. address, Kiss Me Quick, Goss, goodwill, porridge, Fido and Rover, slap-bang shop, ordinary, alamode beefshop, coffee-house, coffee-palace, coffee-tavern, buffet, coffee shop, restaurant, café, Drage, tinned salmon, rather (discourse function), monkey parade, shopping parade, Sunnyside, to be into, baggonet, burgoo, ice (cube), vegetarian. While these are the primary lexical types treated in the case studies, many others are discussed tangentially throughout. Examples are drawn primarily from British and North American varieties of English. The book is filled with excellent primary source material from many textual types and genres, quoted at length to provide adequate context.

11The rich analysis of hundreds of lexemes is unfortunately obscured by the incomplete and uneven index, which only records some of the terms studied according to unclear inclusion criteria. Lexemes are lumped together with concepts and names; no italicization or other autonymic marking is used to indicate whether an entry refers to a lexeme, to the related concept, or to a topic addressed in the book. Not all the main “headwords” [11] announced in chapter subheadings make it in: sosison vo land is absent; Swiss waiter is indexed as a concept, but not as lexeme; maroon is included, but only as a color term, not as a person term [53], and its separate pyrotechnic sense [29] is left unexplained, whereas all this could have been disambiguated at least in a fuller index (all the more so as maroon is used to illustrate polysemy). Many of the fascinating etymological asides are hidden within the text, without their indexation. The innovative analyses here would have merited being highlighted through a separate index registering all lexical types studied, even those mentioned once, preferably with separate lists for non-English words too. There is an important lexicographizing function to nomenclature indexes in lexicological works with this level of detail: because some of the terms or senses are absent from the reference lexicography, or are treated in a new way here, an exhaustive index essentially “lexicographizes” the wordlist, rendering it usable in future work, without the logistical burdens of writing or updating a dictionary.

12Wright’s application of sociolinguistic theories to word history tends to be quite original. Social network theory [Ch. 1] provides a useful explicative model for the spread of a lexical item: diffusion tends to occur among weak-tie uniplex networks (networks of speakers with less proximity, less frequency of contact, less overlap of contact), rather than in strong-tie multiplex networks (the more close-knit networks typical of what could be considered speech communities) where innovations might originate. The author correlates lexical use with concrete historical networks of users by drawing on the historian’s practice of prosopography, “the comparison of biographies in order to gain an overall understanding of their commonalities and interactions” [18], now more feasible due to streamlined searches online. Users’ affiliations, in-group or out-group status, macro extralinguistic factors or events are brought to bear on word history. Mediated discourse, online, in print, or otherwise, constitutes “non-proximal sources” [151] that may contribute to a lexical item’s transformation into a mass phenomenon throughout a diasystem or beyond – “not necessarily spread by face-to-face encounters as they can be transmitted over very great spatial or time-distances via writing” [6]. The process of lexical adoption may call on users’ “language regard” as popularized by “lexical influencers” [Ch. 6] and it may involve “lexical appropriation” [Ch. 9] – all terms used to address the significant roles that metalinguistic consciousness play in language practice and change.

13Also novel is the treatment of what in other contexts would be called “borrowings” or “loans.” Wright integrates their discussion into other analyses, showing that the exogenous origin of a lexical innovation need not be the sole frame of analysis. Bookending this work is the example Califont, originally coined as a brand name for a type of water heater, now unfamiliar in its place of origin (England) but having spread elsewhere, including to several Latin American varieties of Spanish as calefón [1-4, 6, 192]: its Spanish adaptation is outside the book’s purview but shows how the most banal of words can be appropriated by speakers elsewhere, in unexpected ways that are not intuitively retrievable but require empirical investigation. The section on language regard [§6.3; see also §1.4] argues that the movement from lexical profusion to restriction in the semantic field of “eating establishments” in English can be explained in the framework of “language regard,” likely due to the prestige and associations with French dining, hence the adoption of English words restaurant and café as other terms fell out of use. In the other direction, the author treats intrasystem transfers, from one social group to another within a diasystem (such as mainstream adoption of hippy to be into [§9.2]), as lexical appropriation, “borrowing from a social angle” [151, 178]. This quite aptly acknowledges that the salient social mechanism of “borrowing” is not that speakers of an L1 adopt something from an L2 so much as that two or more socially structured – not necessarily alloglot—systems are sharing lexical repertoires. Citing some important work [8], in particular from a related volume she edited (Wright [2020]), the author argues that lexical sociolinguistics “undoes the concept of languages” [6] or “questions the validity of the concept of separate languages” [8] – an observation in tune with current theorizations, especially newer translanguaging approaches, surely to be pursued further.

14Terminology at times departs from more canonical use, though not unjustifiably so. Here “sociolinguistic variable” or “social variable” refers to the macrosocial factors structuring particular uses – principally age, gender, race, region (including urban vs. rural), religion, social class—rather than to the variable linguistic feature itself (Labovian sense; cf. Geeraerts et al. [2024: 6]). Lexemes become “lexified” [18] (as opposed to lexicalized). “Community of practice” is used somewhat loosely to designate diaphasic (or diatechnic) practices especially of professional groups (e.g., lawyers [47], police forces [49], perfumers [74], or antique dealers [147]) and religious groups (Nonconformist Dissenters [32]) among some others, where it would be possible, in monographic studies, to more tightly specify a community of practice. “Collocation” extends beyond the immediate syntagmatic context to refer more broadly to textual cooccurrence or “exophoric” correlation “outside the text” [10]. “Prototypes” are distinguished from “stereotypes” in a way that invites further development, prototypicality being treated as a “psychological notion” and stereotypicality as a “sociolinguistic” one [79-80, citing Geeraerts]. Yet the two notions are not mutually exclusive, as all prototypes carry social information as well – a point the author acknowledges in noting that a person’s idea of a prototypical bird, for instance, may differ depending on geographical location. It seems significant that the chapter [5; see also p. 7] devoted to this topic mainly addresses proper nouns and their antonomastic extension; meanwhile the gendered “stereotypical” information coded into two sixteenth-century attestations of goodwill (“permission to enjoy a woman’s body” [84]) might also be analyzed in the frame of euphemism: overall, particular (i.e., non-prototypical?) lexical cases suggestive of some potential larger argument on the notion of stereotype, maybe as a mechanism of semantic evolution.

15One main takeaway from The Social Life of Words – a surprise, not exactly in line with the zeitgeist – is mercifully not that massive digital data sets now make sophisticated sociolexicometry viable. Rather the reverse, it is that, in a sociolinguistic perspective, all the philological data now available online entails systematic manual manipulation and interpretation by the human analyst. The importance of qualitative analysis, along with manual i.e. unautomated research methods, is both implicitly and explicitly asserted (also see Durkin [2012: 6]). Wright observes that “single corpora are usually insufficient for lexical sociolinguistics” [5]. There are various factors that may hinder, if not render worthless, quantitative corpus analysis in sociolexicological research [5, 9-11, 115, 167]: extremely low-frequency items, limited text samples, unclean data or poor text recognition, faulty tagging, press syndication which distorts a small sample by multiplying tokens across exact reprints of an identical text. Polysemy is a particularly troublesome aspect of corpus searching, especially where high-frequency tokens may include some relatively obscure meanings (such as discourse function laugh or rather) [9-10, 42, 132-134]. Only hinted at by the author in terms of corpus data is lexical use in the realm of “taboo” (“contraindicated” or “sociolinguistically marked” lexis [190]), where absence in the documentation is as salient as the discursive strategies observed within it: an epistemological problem posed to “statistical (in)significance” within corpus analysis, beyond the methodological challenges in locating attestations. All of this is not to say that lexicometric analysis is irrelevant; indeed it may be useful, as the author demonstrates in several places where modest calculations enrich the overall picture [e.g., 72, 114-118]. To be sure, there will be no shortage of quantitative lexical studies elsewhere; Geeraerts et al. [2024] is exemplary in its methods and theorizing (again, there abstracting in the aim of describing lects, rather than lexemes). But quantitative analysis is not the overall focus in Wright’s work, nor is it heuristically appropriate for all sociolexicological pursuits.

16Illustrative of this is the author’s description of how some words are racialized or, more broadly, how racial – and racist – social hierarchies are reflected in lexical use. In an unsettling discussion on the social information coded into lexical stereotypes [§5.6], Wright lists eighteenth-century English dog names which overlap with the names that British enslavers gave to the people they enslaved (an overlap not observed among the free) – apparently painstaking work that involved, on the one hand, reading lost-dog advertisements in the press and, on the other, sifting through court records of the British colony of St. Helena among other registers, then formulating an empirically based argument (avoiding “anachronistic inference” [97]) as to their correlation. Elsewhere, in a discussion on polysemy [§3.3], Wright explains the origins of the U.S. police practice of using maroon to describe the chestnut-brown eye color of Black Americans, but not the identical eye color of white or other racialized groups, a development that was due in part to the textual translation of French criminologist Alphonse Bertillon’s classification scheme (< Fr. marron ‘brown (eyes)’). The racialized element of burgoo ‘festive gathering (in rural U.S.)’ is more subtle [§9.4.7], governed by an “authority constraint” [see §8.1] whereby, in white supremacist discourse, the burgoo was described as the appanage of the dominating group and excluding or ridiculing Indigenous and Black people (the examples cited are prefaced with a content warning): that is, the “social meaning of burgoo differed according to race” [172, 176]. As the book hews to fairly safe topics (it concludes with an appeal for focus on the terminology of commerce and industry [192; see also 5-6]), the above are particularly noteworthy examples of illuminating sociolexicological arguments out of reach of more quantitative or phonocentric research methods.

  • 9 See a Bourdieusian approach in Boutet [2016, part 1] distinguishing referential or representational (...)

17In a certain sense, the lexicon is the most social of linguistic domains. It is the most concrete level of language, the most immediately accessible resource for speakers to assert their own agentivity and creativity in how they communicate with others in ways that, crucially, are not magically severed from past discourse but maintain some conventional intersubjective link to previous morpholexical patterns – even if only to oppose them, itself a socially significant act. That is, the lexicon is where metalinguistic consciousness and speaker agentivity surface most spectacularly, especially strong, for one thing, in fields that are central to social notions of identity, community, or life experience—for instance, those involving race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, neurodivergence, social class, political affiliation, nationality or regionality, and so forth. There is vast sociolinguistic work to be done to describe how lexical items are used in identity construction and community belonging and, in reverse, in hate speech and political manipulation – including historically, and beyond just short diachrony. A variationist sociolinguistics that dismisses the lexicon as trivial or unstudiable takes for granted the essentially sociopolitical aspect of denomination,9 implicitly locating lexical meaning in objective entities and their supposed properties rather than in the communities of speakers producing that meaning themselves – a fact Wright’s book skillfully sets out to problematize in both theoretical and methodological terms, with immeasurably more to be done in the future.

18It would be “unrealistic” to presume that historical lexicology will recover the prominent position it once held in linguistics (Buchi & Dworkin [2019: §6]). Yet as lexical use is so bound up in all manner of ideological, political, and cultural contestations with material real-world consequences, perhaps some researchers will see engaged, positionalized lexical sociolinguistics as a way to give relevance to an (often needlessly) esoteric academic pursuit. The enthusiasm shown by non-specialists for word histories – say, in “word of the year” programs or publicized dictionary updatings – is out of all proportion to the paucity of large-scale lexical research undertaken by trained practitioners (again, see Durkin [2012: 3-4]; Geeraerts et al. [2024: 21]), which tends to be confined to maverick groups of enthusiasts. One gets the impression that lexicology is a fun little pastime, a vocational outlet against the “real” science of linguistics or relegated, if anything, to the gatekept “applied” science of lexicography. To adopt an optimistic view, Laura Wright’s Social Life of Words may provide impetus to some word-shy sociolinguists to take another – or a first! – look at this “most problematic” of disciplinary blind spots.

Top of page


Androutsopoulos, Jannis. 2016. Theorizing Media, Mediation and Mediatization. In Nikolas Coupland (ed.), Sociolinguistics: Theoretical Debates, 282-302. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bell, Allan. 2016. Succeeding Waves: Seeking Sociolinguistic Theory for the Twenty-First Century. In Nikolas Coupland (ed.), Sociolinguistics: Theoretical Debates. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 391-414.

Bell, Allan, & Devyani Sharma (eds.). 2014. Media and Language Change. Debate section in Journal of Sociolinguistics 18(2). 185-286.

Blommaert, Jan. 2013. Writing as a Sociolinguistic Object. Journal of Sociolinguistics 17(4). 440-459.

Boutet, Josiane. 2016. Le pouvoir des mots, 2nd ed. Paris: La Dispute.

Buchi, Éva & Steven Dworkin. 2019. Etymology in Romance. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Oxford University Press.

Coupland, Nikolas (ed.). 2016. Sociolinguistics: Theoretical Debates. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Durkin, Philip. 2012. Variation in the Lexicon: The ‘Cinderella’ of Sociolinguistics? English Today 112, vol. 28, no. 4. 3-9.

Geeraerts, Dirk, Dirk Speelman, Kris Heylen, Mariana Montes, Stefano De Pascale, Karlien Franco & Michael Lang. 2024. Lexical Variation and Change: A Distributional Semantic Approach. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Geeraerts, Dirk, Gitten Kristiansen & Yves Peirsman (eds.). 2010. Advances in Cognitive Sociolinguistics. Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter.

Grondelaers, Stefan, Dirk Speelman & Dirk Geeraerts. 2007. Lexical Variation and Change. In Dirk Geeraerts & Hubert Cuyckens (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 988-1011.

Kabatek, Johannes. 2023. Eugenio Coseriu: Beyond Structuralism. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter.

Koch, Peter & Wulf Oesterreicher. 2001. Gesprochene Sprache und geschriebene Sprache. In Günter Holtus, Michael Metzeltin, & Christian Schmitt (eds.), Lexikon der Romanistischen Linguistik, I/2. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer. 584-627.

Lipka, Leonhard. 1992. An Outline of English Lexicology: Lexical Structure, Word Semantics, and Word-Formation, 2nd ed. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer.

Lutzeier, Peter Rolf. 2002. Der Status der Lexikologie als linguistische Disziplin. In Alan D. Cruse, Franz Hundsnurscher, Michael Job & Peter Rolf Lutzeier (eds.), Lexikologie. Ein internationales Handbuch zur Natur und Struktur von Wörtern und Wortschätzen, I. Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter : 1-14.

Rehm, Georg & Andy Way (eds.). 2023. European Language Equality: A Strategic Agenda for Digital Language Equality. Cham, Switzerland: Springer / European Language Equality.

Wright, Laura (ed.). 2020. The Multilingual Origins of Standard English. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter Mouton.

Top of page


1 See Kabatek [2023] for a recent contextualization of Coseriu’s theories, fundamental to Romance linguistics.

2 Note that Wright does not use the terms lexicology or lexicological in the book.

3 A point worth emphasizing as the gap between availability of digital resources for English vs. other languages is only growing; see Rehm & Way [2023].

4 Some good examples for English are found in the special issue introduced in Durkin [2012]; see also Geeraerts et al. [2024 : 21-27] for an overview of lexicological work where “the diachronic perspective goes hand in hand with a sociolinguistic one.”

5 While in principle oral corpora could obviously be used to study the lexicon, their relatively tiny size compared to written corpora (due to the logistical demands of traditional field work), with extremely small and heterogeneous sets of lexical types, limits meaningful statistical treatment of the type favored by many sociolinguists.

6 Generally on further integrating the written code and mediatization into sociolinguistics, see Blommaert [2013]; Bell & Sharma [2014]; several contributions in Coupland [2016], including Androutsopoulos [2016]. Specifically on the persistent inadequacy of applying sociophonetically defined parameters to lexical, morphological, or syntactic sociolinguistic variables, see Geeraerts et al. [2024: 16-17].

7 Geeraerts et al. [2024: 17, 25] use “variational lexicology” and “sociolexicology”; Grondelaers, Speelman, and Geeraerts [2007] and several contributions in Geeraerts, Kristiansen & Peirsman [2010] use “sociolexicology” and “sociolexicological.” It is important to distinguish between various uses of the terminology. The Leuven school advances the unique approach of a quantitative distributional onomasiological sociolexicology. Whereas Wright problematizes how social structure affects lexical use (oriented toward the linguistic sign), Geeraerts and colleagues invert lexical variation into the “response variable” to create a “lectometric” approach (Geeraerts et al. [2024: 4-6]): lexical variation is used to provide insights on the lect itself (oriented toward the linguistic system).

8 See Geeraerts et al. [20248-17] on how prototype theory has helped to bring speakers’ encyclopedic knowledge of things in the world into the purview of denotational structure, contrasting with earlier structuralist views.

9 See a Bourdieusian approach in Boutet [2016, part 1] distinguishing referential or representational value from the performative, “actional” role of words as language praxis.

Top of page


Electronic reference

Nicholas Lo Vecchio, Laura Wright, The Social Life of Words: A Historical ApproachLexis [Online], Book reviews, Online since 17 May 2024, connection on 24 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

Top of page

About the author

Nicholas Lo Vecchio

Nicholas Lo Vecchio, Milan, Italy

Nicholas Lo Vecchio (PhD, Sorbonne Université) is an independent researcher, translator, and editor based in Milan. Web page:

Top of page



The text only may be used under licence CC BY-SA 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

Top of page
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search