Give Yourself A Word Workout
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.