(The Blog)

And now for a few words about words (and many other things)...

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Entries in Spanish (2)


Every word, a fugitive

While kicking around ideas to post on this Word Journal, I remembered an article I wrote a few years ago for Humanities magazine—perhaps because the piece ran under the headline Words, Words, Words. It was the story of a new scholarly edition of Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language, considered the first authoritative work of its kind when it was initially printed in 1755. That's not very long ago, in the history of the English language. It's amazing to think that before then, there wasn't one single source for English speakers to consult (whereas Spanish and French speakers had long had such books, a shameful fact to the British publishers who recruited Johnson). Forget dictionary.com. There wasn't even a dictionary.

The most interesting irony is that the act of creating an authoritative word glossary only revealed the democratic, evolutionary nature of the language. Words don't respond well to authority. To quote my own article, if I may:

By his own admission, Johnson set out to "fix" the language, to stabilize it, and in so doing, save it from those who would erode it by using it--a mission in line with "Dr. Johnson's" rigid reputation. "People still like to think of Johnson as a dictator of language," DeMaria says. "And in the dictionary, you can point to evidence of that." For example, in a comparison of the words "later" and "latter," Johnson declares that the, well, latter of the two is "only used by barbarians."

Yet in the end (that is to say, in the Preface), Johnson came to respect the common usage of words, admitting that language can no more be fixed than "the image of a grove in a rainstorm." He resigned himself, in this case not unhappily, to the task of "registering" the language, capturing it as it was. "He was quite struck with the variety, the illusiveness, and the liquidity of language, its fugitive qualities," DeMaria explains.

Samuel Johnson, WTF?Fugitive qualities, eh? Sometimes, it seems like more and more words are going into hiding ("k, c u there, ttyl!"). For those of us who work with words (and especially weirdos like me who insist on proper spelling and punctuation even in a casual email--an email!), it can be a bit frustrating. But it isn't just barbarians who are to blame texting and tweeting, and even 140 characters are plenty when used properly. Our language is an everyday glimpse of who we are and who we are becoming ("image of a grove in a rainstorm," meet UrbanDictionary.com). It was nice to be reminded that even this guy (right) got with the times (albeit the mid-18th century) and learned to love—and respect—the language as we know it, and as we use it.


What's the best word you've learned this week... or month... or year?

The English language may not have the most native speakers in the world (it's tied for second with Spanish behind—way behind—Mandarin Chinese), but it very likely has the most words. It's impossible to know for sure, but even conservative estimates, by the people responsible for the Oxford English Dictionary, put the number of English words at 250,000, not counting all the variations or, of course, non-universal slang (you know, the fun stuff):

The Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words. To this may be added around 9,500 derivative words included as subentries. Over half of these words are nouns, about a quarter adjectives, and about a seventh verbs; the rest is made up of exclamations, conjunctions, prepositions, suffixes, etc. And these figures don't take account of entries with senses for different word classes (such as noun and adjective).

This suggests that there are, at the very least, a quarter of a million distinct English words, excluding inflections, and words from technical and regional vocabulary not covered by the OED, or words not yet added to the published dictionary, of which perhaps 20 per cent are no longer in current use. If distinct senses were counted, the total would probably approach three quarters of a million.

Considering that the more articulate among us only use about 20,000 words naturally—even Shakespeare's works contain "only" slightly more than 30,000—it's not too shocking that we might encounter a new word every day (technically, we could learn a new word or a new meaning every minute for a year and we would still have a ways to go).

In any event, the best word I read this week is "agroof"—a rare adverb that means "flat on one's face," as in, "He tried to get away, but as soon as he started running, he fell agroof." It's a bit slangy, but with etymologically legit roots back to the Old Norse á grúfu, or "face down." I love it because when I first heard the meaning, I assumed, incorrectly, that it was onomatopoeia. Isn't that what it would sound like when someone falls flat on their face? Ahhhh-groof!

Incidentally, one of my other favorite words, though I didn't just learn it, is "onomatopoeia."

What's yours?