There are a great many things wrong with the English language. It’s an unwieldy and bloated monster of a thing, a linguistic Yog-sothoth and just as ubiquitous and just as malign. All that finds itself in its path is destroyed, consumed and repurposed. It is a language of empire, of colonialism and of tyranny. It is my mother tongue and for that I count myself immensely grateful. I dread to think what it’s like to actually learn English as a second language, especially considering how much of a mess of it we native speakers make. Our syntax is a twisted bastardisation of something faintly Germanic and our verb conjugation is, at its very best, completely nonsensical. It has rigid and unbreakable rules that must be followed, but only if you feel like it. It has a vast and intricate system of grammar that is almost universally ignored. We have in excess of four hundred homophones in regular use and perhaps most annoyingly of all, just as soon as you think you’ve got the entire thing licked, when you finally think you can say “English, thou art Conquered! Thou art like unto my bitch [yo!]” it goes and changes. It is fluid and ever-changing, forever in flux, it cannot be mastered or tamed and it cannot be killed, it is a lexical Lambton Worm. But all of this is not without its upsides.
English being as old and venerable a language as it is, having continually evolved for over two thousand years, it has left us with quite a legacy of words. The Oxford English Dictionary apparently contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 for obsolete words, with a further 9,500 derivative words as sub-entries. That comes to somewhere around 228,000 words and that’s before you start to include continually emerging words from slang and dialect. It’s safe to say that the learning of the English language is very much a life’s work. It’s estimated that the average native English speaker has receptive knowledge of about 12,000 words, rising to somewhere around 17,000 if you’re lucky enough to have been university educated. If you’re as voracious a reader as myself or an unrelenting word-hound you might be lucky enough to reach somewhere in the region of thirty thousand, that equating to only 13% of the entire vocabulary available to you. This massive deficit means that more and more words slip into obscurity with each passing year and that makes me sad.
Not so long ago I used the word insalubrious when talking with someone I used to work with. I thought that this was a fairly common and relatively innocuous word. They didn’t have even the remotest idea what I was going on about. I can’t really hold it against them, in the past fortnight I’ve come across three words which I had never encountered before. In an email earlier this week my dearest mother referred to me as being parsimonious.
par·si·mo·ni·ous – /ˌpärsəˈmōnēəs/
Adjective: Unwilling to spend money or use resources; stingy or frugal.
That sent me straight to google for a definition. I wondered how I had never come across the word before. It’s a great word. Admittedly it’s no alacrity, but it has quite a nice ring of self-contained sibilance. This was followed in short order by solatium and gasconade. Two words so apparently obscure that my browser’s spell-check has thrown its arms up in the air with disgust.
so·la·ti·um – /səˈlāSHēəm/
Noun: A thing given to someone as a compensation or consolation: “a solatium in the form of an apology was offered”.
gas·con·ade – /ˌgaskəˈnād/
Noun: Extravagant boasting.
In a world of texts and tweets, where extraneous words and letters are shed piecemeal, words are dying everyday. Although brevity might be the soul of wit I doubt Shakespeare envisaged declarations of amusement being reduced to “LOL” or cries of astonishment to “OMG.” Now I’ve got nothing against new words, but these terms and abbreviations are forcing out much richer words. So I implore you to dust off those big words and put them to work in conversation. If you don’t know any go find some. Read likes there’s no tomorrow. You will be enriched, people you talk to will be enriched. We all win. Now put some damn effort in!