August 8, 2010
Use Your Words
According to Wikipedia, the Oxford English Dictionary contains 500,000 words. Contrastingly, The Global Language Monitor (GLM) claims that the number of words in the English language crossed the one million mark on June 10, 2009, with a word being added every 98 minutes — 14.7 new words a day. The GLM lexicographers count new words like chad, twitter, and texting, but also Chinglish, the shout of joy Jai Ho! from Slumdog Millionaire, King of Pop, Dubya’s misunderestimate, and Steven Colbert’s concocted truthiness.
All part of what leads Slate to report that the 1,000,000+ figure is bogus: “...what is a word? If run is a verb, is the noun run another word? What about the inflected forms ran, runs, and running?....Are compounds, such as man-bites-dog, man-child, man-eater, manhandle, man-hour, man of God, man's man, and men in black, to be counted once or many times?
Another question: What is English? The word veal, borrowed from French in the 14th century, seems to be English, as does spaghetti....But what about pho, a Vietnamese soup found from the 1930s but only recently common?”
The writer has a point.
While words are being added, words are disappearing. We don’t use perchance any more, unless we’re quoting Shakespeare and how often do we do that? Methinks it’s rare when we script our missives with a quilled nib these days. Only World War II vets utter copacetic, maybe while quaffing a cup of Joe laced with a nip of hooch. Ask a teenager what a telegraph is and, verily, you’ll face a headlamps in the peepers of a deer’s comely countenance. But Wi-Fi? Zounds, they know Wi-Fi.
Today, an average educated person knows about 20,000 words and uses about 2,000 words in a week. I know that I don’t use all the words I know.
When was the last time I used autocrat? How about you? Have you ever used it, written or verbal? It’s a perfectly good word, and we’ve all known at least one (probably worked for him — sorry, but in my book autocrats are men, customarily florid and bellicose). But instead of describing the guy as an autocrat, we’d call him bossy, or a jerk, or if we were really p-o’d, a shithead, the first word out of Linda’s mouth when I asked her for a favorite.
Over the years I’ve accumulated a number of favorite words, as have several of you readers. Serendipity tops my list; serendipitous is also on Kate’s. Because they sound like their definitions, I am also partial to slapdash, haphazard, scattershot, beguile, waterfall, and mukluks. Balaclava, too, which sounds less like the goofy head-covering it is and more like a sprightly Russian dance.
Quite a few Yiddish words land in my personal lexicon: maven, schmatta, schlepp, schmaltz, schmutz (which is frequently in the corner of my eye), zaftig, and tchotchke come to mind. Both Anna and I relish spatula, which to me sounds Yiddish, although it’s not. My mom told me decades ago that there might be Jewish heritage in our shiksa veins; perchance this accounts for the allure.
Anna’s also fond of precocious, conversation, savant (great choice!), juniper, hydrangea, and veritas, which for you non-Latin-studying non-Catholics, means “truth.” Bella is also in her selection, as it should be: Anna’s a sensitivo Italian girl. As flowers, hydrangeas are opulently stunning, and the spelling is enigmatic; however for me, hydrangea sounds like a plumbing fixture: Pouring Drano down the hydrangea dissolved the clog. Sorry, Anna.
The aurally luscious luna, azure, heliotrope, bella, and effervescent are a smattering of the words Kate emailed, along with splendor, sanctimonious, pugnacious, dolt, plethora, quintessential and bodacious. Coming in determinate, yet not piddling, on her roster was yes ”because I believe it is THE best word in any language. It is always moving forward. It inspires. It pleases. It strengthens. It provides happiness, joy, confidence, affirmation. It is highly charged with positive energy. It opens up the Universe. Try it...say 'yes' 6 times — see?”
Powerful stuff, or as Lisa would exclaim, fabulous.
Carolyn’s sole entry was onomatopoeia for the meaning, spelling and sound. This choice becomes her. When queried to name her favorite food, she responded “rice.” Carolyn’s been quirky since we met as freshmen in college. Kathy enjoys how hilarious and fantastic feel when she says them; plethora too, just ‘cause.
Terri proffered the alternative tchotchke spelling of tstatchke and moot ”because every time I hear it I remember the bubble-boy Seinfeld episode where George argued that the correct word was ‘moop.’ Hahaha! Cracks me up every time!” My cousin Sue submitted whimsical as “it brings to mind a carefree feeling and a spur of the moment happening.” Whimsical is like whimsical does.
I want to embrace pentimento, a sentimental-sounding noun evoking a Victorian valentine tucked into a yellowing novel. It actually is the descriptor for the reappearance in a painting of an underlying image that had been painted over. But the sonance of pentimento elicits flashbacks of jarred Kraft pimento cheese stuffed in celery sticks during the 1950s, which sucks the poetry right out of it.
Linda also tendered palimpsest, a parchment or the like from which writing has been partially or completely erased to make room for another text. I have never spoken this term in my life although it’s appeared in books I’ve read. For me, the adjective palimpsestic is decidedly unsettling, summoning visions of ulcerated, excreting pustules. Funny, the effect of one word and how enunciation can completely alter its meaning in my brain.
There is a danger in our society in having too large a vocabulary so I’ve learned to exercise caution. A few of my coworkers have ogled me askance when I’ve used a word that was polysyllabic or abstruse (at least to them). When I write copy for clients, I forgo all the MBA, organizational, and bureaucratic-ese which tends to obfuscate the express intentionality of the linguistic content — if you get my drift.
Judy wrote that her word right now is moratorium, as her family decreed a halt on the interjection “shut up.” I think I’ll interpret that as a portent to suspend this specific activity for a period of time until future events warrant a removal of the suspension or issues regarding the activity have been resolved.
P. S. Formidable was Marilyn’s submission as it sounds like what it means. She fancies it to describe people, especially strong women, and I’m going to borrow it.
I so appreciate all the formidable women who contributed to this column. Thank you.