Friday, January 04, 2013

Always Words

I love words. I always have. They fascinate and delight me. Where they come from, how they have changed over time, other words that are related to them. It's impossible to know exactly how many words there are in English. Technical terms, slang, foreign/latin words adopted for use in English, etc., makes it all to complex to come even close to knowing. But it is generally agreed there are at least 250,000 distinct English words.

Rather discouragingly, one Google source says the average five year old child has a vocabulary of 1,500 words—and that the average adult’s vocabulary is only twice that. Shakespeare, someone determined, had a vocabulary of around 24,000 words…most of which it seems he used at one time or another. The average dictionary contains 150,000 or so. English is constantly changing and evolving, picking up new words like a snowball rolling down hill. Unfortunately, it also sheds some very nice words. I’ve always found “Thee” and “thou” quaintly pretty, like those crystal paperweights with flowers inside. I also enjoy “prithee” and “mayhaps,” though they are almost never heard or used. But they're there, should we choose to use them.

The language of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is so far removed from modern English it requires a glossary of several thousand words to explain what’s being said. Yet I assume, since they were officially English 400 words ago, they’d all be included in the estimated 1,000,000 words. And of course the spelling and pronunciation of those words also change over time.

The epithet “nigger” came, I am sure, as a result of the slurring-through-rapidity of the word “Negro” until the original pronunciation was all but replaced. And there is my perennial favorite mispronunciation, “prez-eh-dent” which completely obscures the word’s original pronunciation and true meaning: “preh-ZY-dent”…one who presides. And the run-together word that also hides its original meaning: it’s “break fast,” not “breakfast.”

Unfortunately, in today's society, far too many people construct their sentences of epithets rather than standard dictionary-recognized words. In fact, record a five minute “conversation” among these people, write them down verbatim, remove the epithets, and you'll be lucky to have 30 seconds of coherent, acceptable English.

The flexibility and malleability of words can produce interesting results. “Butterfly” for “flutter by,” for example. Or the Civil War’s hirsute Union General Burnside, who gave his name to what are now called “sideburns.” (The Civil War also gave us another commonly used word derived from the women who followed Union Major General Joseph Hooker’s army to provide comfort to the troops: “hookers.”)

How can anyone not be fascinated with words? How can anyone be bored when all they have to do is pick a word out of the air and see how many rhymes can be found are for it? (“Muster” for example. There’s “buster,” “bluster, “cluster,” “fluster,” “duster”.....I know, that sounds like a list of Santa’s reindeer, but you get the idea.)

Words are as fascinating spoken as they are read. I love the sound of “lugubrious,” “ostentatious,” “obstreperous,” “tintinnabulation,” “nondenominational,” "disestablishmentarianism," and my very favorite of all words, “onomatopoeia” and delight in dropping them into a spoken or written sentence whenever possible—which is not easy. And if a word doesn’t exist, make one up! Lewis Carol’s “Jabberwocky” provides us with wonderful nonsense words which never existed before but are almost universally recognized. (“‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gire and gimble in the wabe…”—six out of the thirteen words in that sentence fragment had not existed until Mr. Carol chose to invent them, but who doesn't recognize them, even if no one knows what they mean?)

As you can see, in my haste to touch upon far too many things in far too limited a space, I’ve once again let the original subject spin totally out of control. Words have that effect on me. What I’d intended to be a casual stroll through a field of bright flowers, stopping by one or two to admire their beauty, has been totally lost in a blur of facts and figures and changed subjects and bits and pieces of random thoughts and trivial information all made up entirely of words. But like shiny pebbles on the beach or puffy clouds overhead, they’re fun to look at and contemplate. There are worse things to do with your time.

Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Please take a moment to visit his website ( and, if you enjoy these blogs, you might want to check out Short Circuits: a Life in Blogs (

No comments: