January 13, 2012
Recently I heard that the English language is approaching one million words. This was news to me because I thought the English language already had more than a million words, or maybe it just seemed that way when I was doing my sixth grade vocabulary homework. English is an absolutely amazing language. Not to put down other languages–especially since the only other languages I know are six words of Latin, four words of Russian, five words of French, two words of Norwegian, and the Turkish words bath, coffee, and delight, which leaves me unable to communicate with anyone–but English, unlike French, doesn’t have a fancy academy standing at the gate deciding what words can come in and what form they’ll take and whether, for instance, a DVD player will be considered masculine or feminine. And unlike German English doesn’t create new words solely by sticking old words together so that the word for something fairly new like, say, a hybrid car, consists of eighteen syllables.
English is a linguistic sponge, absorbing new words from all over the place, although that might explain why the language is also kind of a mess. Take, for instance, the simple word "to". It’s a preposition or part of an infinitive or a conjunction or an adverb-just under these uses it gets twenty-two different definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary. Now add another "o" to it and you get "too", which sounds like "to" but is just an adverb, and has only six definitions in the OED. Now take the first "o" and replace it with a "w" and you get "two", which is a number. Move the "w" to the end and it’s "tow", which is either a noun or a verb and is pronounced like "no". If you take "no" and add a "w" to it you get "now", which is pronounced differently from "tow". To get "now" to sound like "tow" you have to put a "k" in front of it so you get "know", and to make "no" sound like "to" you have to replace the "o" with "ew" so you have "new", and if you stick a "k" in front of that you have "knew" which sounds like "new" but means something completely different. Now it gets really tricky because "no" sounds like "so". If you want "so" to sound like "to" you have to replace the "o" with "ue" so you have "sue". Or you can make "so" sound like "no" if you replace the "o" with "ew", so you have "sew", which doesn’t sound anything like "new". And if you take "so" and add a "w" to it so you have "sow" the pronunciation depends on whether it’s a noun or a verb.
With that much flexibility you’d think English would have a word for everything, or that at least people would stop using "impact" as a verb, and yet English is also a very environmentally conscious language because words get recycled all the time, especially in the field of technology. My computer is full of cookies, but I can’t eat any of them. In both the Harry Potter and Lord Of The Rings films when trolls are mentioned I expected some big sweaty guy to come in contradicting everything everyone else said and occasionally screaming that the first thing the Nazis did was make everyone grow beards. Instead the cinematic trolls were these large, sweaty monsters swinging keyboards around and complaining about how hard it is to get Wi-Fi in a dungeon. And there are plenty of things I think should be words that I never hear used. For instance I’ve heard dictators being described as "ruthless", and yet I never hear, say, Gandhi described as "ruthful". Before you dismount a horse you have to mount it first, but before you dismantle something do you first have to mantle it? And people sometimes get discombobulated, which makes me wonder how they got combobulated in the first place.
And some words just confuse me, like "shampoo". The word "sham" means "fake", although I guess that’s a good thing because you wouldn’t want to wash your hair with real poo. There’s also the preponderance of synonyms in English, which I think contributes to his growth, even though I don’t think this is always necessary. A few years ago the word "bootylicious" was added to the Oxford English Dictionary even though the perfectly good word "callipygian" was already doing the job. And the word "flexitarian" describes someone who’s willing to adjust his or her diet to accommodate what everyone else is eating, even though I’d think "easygoing" or "omnivore" would be words that would work just as well. There’s also the small number of supposedly bad words. George Carlin famously listed seven words you couldn’t say on television, although, depending on the channel you’re watching, apparently you can say all of them now. Ironically the first time I heard Carlin list the seven words you couldn’t say on television I was watching television. The words Carlin listed were feces, urine, intercourse, vagina, fellatio, flexitarian, and mammaries. Yes, I know those aren’t really the words he listed. I’m not prudish, but for one thing I find the scientific words much funnier and for another the scientific words score even higher in Scrabble. Besides the list is constantly changing. The other night I was watching Blazing Saddles on a television station where you couldn’t say six of the seven words, so it was a censored version. But it wasn’t one of the unintentionally funny censored versions where they replace objectionable words with other words, like the time I watched Fargo on an equally prudish television station so Steve Buscemi was saying things like "I got frozen shot, you fruitful bowl of soup!" In Blazing Saddles they just muted the objectionable words so it was sort of like listening to a rap song and thinking your radio’s going out. Anyway, a woman said "ass" and then the next syllable was muted, and I thought, wow, I didn’t know "hole" was one of the words you couldn’t say on television.
Actually I looked it up and currently the seven words you can’t say on television are bunny, rainbow, hug, sunshine, volition, ampersand, and semprini. Recently the United States Supreme Court heard yet another case regarding what words could be said on television and when. The Supreme Court, by the way, has come to be referred to frequently as SCOTUS, and the President of the United States is often referred to as POTUS, and, even though I haven’t heard it yet, I assume that means Congress is also called COTUS, which sounds close to coitus, which is fitting considering how often Congress fucks the country, but that’s another story. To get back to Carlin, I think his point was that we consider certain words shocking when we shouldn’t. We should embrace language to its fullest. It really makes me a little sad when I look through a dictionary and find a word that’s obsolete, or even just rarely used. Take the word xenium, for instance, which comes to English directly from Greek, which has given us a lot of useful words like alphabet, blasphemy, gangrene, elastic, and asylum. The word xenium simply means a gift offered to a stranger, which I think is the sort of word that should get more use, especially since language itself is the ultimate xenium. We all enter the world as strangers, and yet we’re able to communicate and connect and share because of this wonderful gift called language.