Too Wordy


Supercilious. Disingenuous. Concatenation. Consternation. Hegemony. Ancillary.

They don’t just trip off the tongue into everyday speech, do they? It’s amazing how few words we need in English to express ourselves at home, among friends and in our neighbourhoods.

The Oxford English Dictionary includes about 171,000 words. By age 12, most English speakers know about 12,000 words, and this can double by mature adulthood. I’ve seen estimates that most written work in English contains only the most frequent 3000 words.

I read recently that there are certain words in English that most people hate. I thought I was the only one who felt that way! The list is topped by words that people associate with body functions, like moist, gurgle and squirt.

On the flip side, there are so many lovable words, either because they are associated with happiness or because they have pleasing sounds: cinnamon, gossamer and quintessential OR love, laughter and rainbows. I have a fondness for some Canadian words like toque and deke, and basic Canadianisms like klicks and toonies!

I love English words, and all the words English absorbs from other languages. Like most quiet and academic-minded kids, I learned my words from reading. I can recognize lots of words by sight, and know their meanings, without ever having spoken them. In some cases, I don’t even know how to say them. For example, when I was a kid, I remember thinking calliope must rhyme with “tally hope.”

I’m good at figuring out words from context. At the very least, I can rule out a lot of possibilities. Let’s say I read “the sussuration of the wavelets on the beach.” From reading experience, I realize that sussuration is an onomatopoeia, so it is going to be about a sound. Sussuration is a soft-sounding word, so I guess it is about the shushing sound they make, and I wouldn’t guess it means a thundering crash (because wavelets are little, right?) Even without that background, what do wavelets do on the beach? They make shushing sounds, they are repetitive, and they erode the beach. It has to be one of those!

I am also a strong speller, and again, it derives from reading. When I need to stop and think about how to spell a word, I can either remember seeing it before and picture how it looks on a page, or I think about how similar words are spelled and apply the same rules: is “anomylous” spelled liked anonymous? (Nope!)

I do get tripped up on certain words, as if I’ve developed a mental block about them. I can never type the word style without transposing letters, and I can never remember how to spell manoeuvre: autocorrect kicked in. There is always the British/American divide to deal with and our British Canadian ours (honour, colour, neighbour). Then there is just plain using the wrong word. I used to mix up mollified and mortified!

I have a rule of thumb when I can’t think of a French word. I just think, “What is a more formal or more difficult word for the same thing in English?” For example: light – lumière; to fix – réparer; to go down – descendre! But of course, there are perfect succinct French words like voilà and ennui which we English-speakers can’t help but borrow.

I know I am in good company when I don’t have to watch my vocabulary and no one thinks I’m putting on airs for pausing to pull ideal words out of the recesses of my brain. Where I hope it is sparkling and not slimy!

Tell me some of your favourite and/or most loathed words, or admit your word mix-ups, or tell me about learning words in languages other than English, or whatever else you’d like to share!

I will leave you with my favourite vocabulary line from Frasier (TV show). Frasier and Niles were vying for a place at an elite club. [13 second video]



  1. Tess

    Haha, I used to not know the difference between organism and orgasm, whilst reading cosmo as a teenager

  2. My favorite word in English is ‘stuff.’ It can stand for so many things!

  3. EcoCatLady

    OK… you and I are apparently total opposites when it comes to word recognition. If I can’t hear a word in my head, I can’t understand it. Russian novels where total hell for me in school – it was like all of the characters had the same name, which was: “long unpronounceable Russian word.”

    I think it’s hilarious that people dislike the word “moist” – I’ll have to remember not to use it lest I inadvertently turn people off! And I’m not great at favorites, but I do like the words apocryphal, sophistry, veracity, and jubilation.

    • True – I visualize how the word looks – its shape and the letters in it. The fact that I don’t try to “say” it in my head is why I make mistakes when trying to pronounce the word in a conversation later. Apparently people are OK when someone talks about a moist cake but not about, say, moist cycling shorts.

  4. Fiona

    Ah…I love this topic! I also love the way other languages interact with English and are historically linked. I have to now look up some of the Canadian words you listed that I don’t know (deke and klicks) as well as ‘concaternation’ from the first line!

    I love the fact that many estimates say that 5,000 words is pretty much the entire vocabulary that you need for spoken fluency in a language. From experience, I think about 3,000 words upwards makes for good, functional, spoken fluency in another language.

    Apparently, after about 4,000 words you reach the point where you can learn new vocabulary from context in reading and your fluency accelerates. I think I am there with French, but not Italian (which I studied for a year intensively.)

    I’m learning Irish at the moment and 3,000 words is the initial. I’m learning partly through the Duolingo app and partly from real Irish speakers (my Irish friend and her friends.) The app seems to be quite accurate so far.

    I love ennui as a word. There are many other French words I love that really don’t have a good equivalent in English – like déchiré, which is almost onomatopoeic. And my current topical favourite is refoulement.

    • I took German in high school. I have lost it entirely, but I still “get” the syntax. Irish! That sounds challenging to me. I am not sure what my next language attempt will be – the choice will be travel related. The library here offers free access to the Rocket Languages app. I had to look up both of those French words! You will have to be careful when talking about refoulement and the police at school.

  5. I am still giggling about a word faux pas in a local shop. The assistant who was loading the shampoo shelf with the brand name Organics shampoo hollered across the aisles to another assistant ‘where does
    this orgasmics shampoo go’? I fully expected a stampede of locals stocking up!

  6. This is elegantly surreal. I mean real good. I love Frasier and this snippet. Imminent thanks, your eminence. Keith

  7. Kris

    Nice post! We have 11 official languages in South Africa. My mother tongue, Afrikaans, derived from Dutch, so I can read Dutch as well. English is the language of business and spoken by most people in SA. I also know German, took it in high school, and can still remember a few phrases, which I use on my German neighbour. I am trying to learn isiXhosa, the indigenous language used in our province. It has 11 classes of nouns! Wish me luck! Oh, my favourite word in English is serendipity.

    • Good luck, Kris! I had studied French in high school and a bit in university. I took a refresher about 10 years ago, but that is a long time ago now too. I do want opportunities to practice speaking French but have not actively pursued it. I wish that learning and speaking multiple languages was the norm here.

  8. One of my favorite words is pulchritudinous because it’s fun to say and it sounds like a word you’d use to describe mud or garbage but means the opposite. (Superfluous is another fun one to say aloud.) My college required freshman to take the Introduction to Linguistics class and I considered making linguistics my minor because I enjoyed the course so much!

    Have you taken this vocab test? I always have lots of obscure words to look up afterwards!

    • Pulchritudinous! I agree it sounds like it should mean something rotten 🙂 I did take the vocabulary test and was interested to look up the words I missed, too!

  9. Rusty

    Pandemonium. Implicit. Discrete. I hated languages at school, being a science/maths student. But later when I lived abroad I realised that even scientists’ minds can learn new languages, I just approached it from a structural, grammatical perspective. I love how it gives me insights into my own language too.

    • Hi Rusty, Even though I was an arts student, I approach a new language through grammar and structure too. I like to know what correct communication looks like in that language before I even attempt it!

  10. Margie in Toronto

    I love ennui – it just seems so fitting when used and must be said with the correct inflection and perhaps a slight sigh at the end.
    I studied French and German at school and while I was never very confident with speaking, I find that I can still understand – or at least eventually figure out – what is being said. At the moment I study Scot’s Gaelic – and yes, it is different from Irish. I enjoy it but it is a difficult language mostly because I have no frame of reference – with English, French & German if you knew a word in one language you could often figure it out in the other – not so with Gaelic!
    One of my favourite books is “The Professor & The Madman” – about the creation of the Oxford English dictionary – I think you would find it fascinating if you haven’t already come across it.

    • Hi Margie, There is a pocket of Scottish Gaelic speakers in Nova Scotia, and Gaelic lessons are readily available. I haven’t attempted it, though! I will put the book on my to-read list. Sounds wonderful!

      • Margie in Toronto

        I am very familiar with Gaelic speaking in NS – I’ve even attended the Gaelic College in St. Ann and a friend teaches Gaelic at the U of Cape Breton. I had a wonderful time. A couple of times a year we hold an all day language and music session here in Toronto and many of our teachers, including Mary Jane Lamond, travel up here from NS to lead the sessions.

    • Rusty

      Ooh that looks like my kind of book.. Looking it up now… I would also recommend The Adventure of English by Melvyn Bragg. You probably can’t get BBC radio podcasts, but he’s a polymath, another of my favourite words.

      • Hi Rusty, my spouse Rom listens to In Our Time podcasts regularly. We can’t access BBC iPlayer, though! Polymath is a cool word.

      • Margie in Toronto

        Bill Bryson also has a whole series on the English language – I have them on CD’s and I’ve loaned them to many of my friends – English is a fascinating language.

  11. I grew up in Nigeria where the school system adhered very strictly to “Queen’s English”. Then I moved to the US and had to start spelling my words the “wrong” way. (Center instead of Centre). Now I’m in Canada and totally confused as to where they fall on the spelling spectrum. Neighbour or neighbor? Alphabet or alphabeth? Realize or realise? Plus how many “s”s and “r”s are in Montessori?

    Right now, I just go with whatever autocorrect suggests.

    • Very confusing! Especially since Canada uses a mishmash of British and American. I always think the norm here is to use “our” and “ize” endings but I bet there are exceptions. At least we don’t have to spell Mississippi…although Saskatchewan is a challenge (and I struggle with Iqaluit).

  12. I love words!!! I have enjoyed this post and the comments. I own several dictionaries and style guides, including Fowlers Guide to English Usage. I have a friend with whom I enjoy looking up things in Fowlers and reading the elegant put downs of those who use American English or common errors.

    When I read novels from centuries past, I find myself writing in the same style on FB with the same friend. We love it.

    • Ha, I also have a friend/Facebook friend I can count on to banter about word usage, grammar and punctuation. Very enjoyable! Is British English taught in your schools, and to what extent are Americanisms creeping in? But of course you have your all-purpose Australian suffix -o!

      • We teach Australian English which is closer to British English but Americanisms definitely creep in. More in colloquial language and, of course, the media, especially commercial TV channels. A personal peeve is the autocorrect by Microsoft of which and that and how the subordinate clauses are punctuated.

        And we end with -ie. I have a young Californian relative staying here and she has adopted some of them. Eg she calls mosquitos, mozzies. No one says mosquitos.

        When I get home I will find the line that cracked us up in Fowlers. Too funny.

  13. Jamie

    I am another one who reads a lot and learns words that way. And I have made a fool of myself trying to pronounce words I’ve only ever read, never heard. 🙂

    When I was younger I would mix up the words vague and vivid.

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