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]