Give Yourself A Word Workout

Reading & Writing

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In these post-Christmas weeks, everyone’s going on about weight and healthy eating, but nobody worries about developing language and communication.

We only use a fraction of the words available to us. The Oxford English Dictionary currently holds 171,476 words in regular use and 47,156 obsolete words. By comparison, the Chinese dictionary has 370,000 words. We have a regular use vocabulary of roughly 3000 words  That’s under 2% of the total number of words we could use if we wanted. A third of our vocabulary is made up of the top 25 words we know. Of the developed countries, Spain has one of the lowest levels of words, at just 100,000.

We shed words like dog hairs. Eric Partridge is a master wordsmith. His books on the English language are very hard to put down once you’ve started delving into them. I can only find his Dictionary of Historical Slang in an abridged version, but even that is about three inches thick (there are no page numbers) and packed with delicious, delightfully arcane words and phrases.

Shakespeare famously invented around 1,700 new words, so I don’t see why I can’t have a bash at a few new ones – although proof readers hate you doing it. The British make up a lot of words, some derivative like ‘kotch’ (to chill, derived from se coucher), some visually vivid, like ‘blinder’. ‘Vulgar Tongues’ by Max Decharne and ‘Dent’s Modern Tribes’ by Susie Dent both explore street language, the former with an emphasis on the role musicians have played in expanding slang, the latter sorting through the slang of specialised groups.

The granddaddy of such street books – apart from Dickens’ ‘Sketches by Boz’ – is ‘Twice Round the Clock, or the Hours of the Day and Night in London’, which perambulates across the city listening in on different lives. Jonathan Green’s book of contemporary quotations extends the Oxford editions into the vox populi, while Mark Forsyth’s delightful ‘Etymologicon’ and ‘Horologicon’ take the same cue, linking linguistic oddities to each other in a kind of freewill through the backwaters of the English language.

Forsyth’s book ‘The Elements of Eloquence’ teaches – as much as it can be taught – the art of turning a fine phrase. Stevyn Colgan’s two books deserve a bigger readership – they take the dot-connecting idea to an extreme and follow one random idea through others all the way back to the start-point, creating a kind of linguistic Oroborus. All of these books will expand your word power and give you a serious head start in pub arguments.

6 comments on “Give Yourself A Word Workout”

  1. Brian Evans says:

    Talking of which, and call me a pedant, but shouldn’t “We only use a fraction of the words available to us” be “We use only a fraction of the words available to us?”

    I believe younger people would have ended the above with “lol”

    Oo-er, does the question mark I put above go inside or outside the quotation marks? I can never remember.

  2. Lee Remedios says:

    ‘New’ words pop up, lovely old words are forgotten. There will always be a remnant who keep the old alive (glass forgers, fixers, hand knitters, spinners and writers).
    Thank you for being one of the above!

  3. Ian Luck says:

    That’s one of the things I love about English. If we don’t have a word for something, we just borrow somebody else’s word to cover. My late father was of Welsh parents (I had an aunt and uncle who spoke very little English – they were lovely people, but sadly, already old when I was a child, so I only saw them a few times), but he lived in London and Essex most of his young life, and picked up slang from various places – living and working in the East End of London in the 1950’s, he had a lot of Jewish friends, and so, picked up words like ‘Kosher’ ‘Schmutter’, ‘Toches’, the last meaning ‘backside’, by the way. His daily speech was peppered with various words and phrases, which sounded a bit like the ‘Streetspeak’ from the original Blade Runner movie. We, of course, were used to it, but to some visitors it must have sounded very, very odd. A line of speech from dad could, and often did, contain bits of English, Welsh, Yiddish, German, Egyptian Arabic, and Cockney Rhyming Slang, with the occasional snippet of Polari thrown in for good measure. My brother and I went to school and used words like ‘kosher’ or phrases like: “Give us a butchers” (Butcher’s hook = look), or if something was nasty, the Welsh phrase: “Ach y fi!”, pronounced ‘Ukkavee!’ Often uttered by Nan when we came into her house covered in mud, etc. It means something on the lines of “How horrid”. Unsurprisingly, the teachers were not amused. Dad was very amused that they were not amused. Whatever, we were gently persuaded to ‘speak proper English’ when at school. We should have just kept schtumm.

  4. Denise Treadwell says:

    I am not sure that the Chinese have words, they are pictograms. And I known children who have gone to regular school during the day and Chinese school in the evening to learn the characters.

  5. Graham says:

    Another great book on words is The Dictionary of Euphemisms, by Hugh Rawson (son of Clayton Rawson, writer and editor of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine). Not many dictionaries are laugh out loud funny but this one damn sure is.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    Brian, the placing of adjectives and adverbs can be vexing but the question mark goes with the question. If the quotes are not a question then the querying mark goes outside the quote marks.
    Teachers who reduce strange words to the category of meaningless are the murderers of language. Standard English is one thing, proper English something completely other. There was a little girl who moved to the American midwest from somewhere in the south. Her teacher referred her to a speech pathologist to get rid of her speech problem. Someone who did not understand accent.
    Teachers do have problems if the children they’re teaching are new to the language. Our school district required a report from classes with large percentages of ESL students explaining how we modified language and curriculum to accommodate these children.
    There is a six year old over here who wants to introduce the word “levidrome” into the vocabulary. It indicates a word which is a proper word read in both directions, proper but different. eg. “pot” and “top”. It seems useful to me.
    One category that seems to be disappearing is the irregular past participle verb. “I shone the light” has become “I shined the light”. Likewise “I wove through the crowd” is now usually “I weaved through the crowd.” How long before those won’t be jarring?
    I like words, like the way they go together – or don’t.
    Chinese words are words just as in any language. They are written in multistroke characters that can often be broken down into the word’s meaning. I can’t draw them here but the character for “man” looks like a stick man and the character for “men” is two stick men. A tree is one character, a forest is two of them. You can learn to read Chinese without being able to speak it because you are reading the meaning.

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