A lot of words are in the English language. The Oxford English Dictionary contains about 290,000 separate entries. Some 200,000 are in common use today. But the average person has a vocabulary of only 20,000 of this 200,000. This baffles me because it implies that if your 20,000 are different from my 20,000, we’ll both be English speakers but won’t be able to understand a single word that the other person says - although being an Englishman living in America, this happens to me almost every day.
Another interesting fact: the average person uses only about 2,000 of their 20,000-word vocabulary in any given week. I suppose they just save the others – words like quidnunc, i.e. “newsmonger”, and axolotl (pronounced aks’o-lot-l), i.e. “the larval form of Amblystoma” – for special occasions, or when trying to impress members of the opposite sex or the same sex. Teenagers probably make do with about 200 words a week, complemented by a comprehensive range of grunts, meaningful stares and angry silences.
Twenty thousand words is a lot of words, not as many as 200,000 (I took advanced math at school, so I say this with confidence), but still a hell of a lot. If you don’t think it is a lot, try writing down 5,000 different words. Go on.
If you’re still reading this piece you’ve probably taken my word for it, because it takes the average person about 8 hours to write down 5,000 different words. Anyone doing it will, by the time they’ve finished, either have forgotten why they’re doing it, gone mad, or died, and will never come back to read about why they’re doing it.
But even given this mountain of words, there are still some surprising gaps in the most obvious of places. For example, when asked whether you like something, have you ever replied by saying “Well, I don’t dislike it”? Why isn’t there a single, simple word to describe something that we don’t actively like, but nor do we actively dislike? Consider this sequence: like a lot, like, like a bit, dislike a bit, dislike, dislike a lot. There’s a glaring gap between “like a bit” and “dislike a bit”, but that’s one hell of a gap, because it describes how most of us feel about all the people in the world that we don’t know (assuming we’re not a Hare-Krishna “I love everyone” type nor a Charles Manson “I hate everyone” type). Consigning all the people you don’t know to an indescribable category on the “like/dislike scale” is akin to trying to pretend that the Inland Revenue Service doesn’t exist. (Try it if you like, but I can assure you it doesn’t work, and in fact it positively hurts). There are approximately six billion people you don’t know, and yet you can’t say how you relate to them!
It gets worse. Try telling someone that you like them a bit. You’d wish you hadn’t, because telling someone you like them a bit is almost identical to telling them that you dislike them a bit. Sitting on the fence and telling someone that you neither like nor dislike them is just as bad, because it sends the message that you don’t think anything about them, and in this world, particularly in the U.S.A., being ignored is the worst possible thing that can happen to you. It’s infinitely better to be hated or ridiculed and famous, than to be loved or respected and ignored – if you don’t believe me, ask Monica Lewinsky, or Barry Bonds, or Osama Bin Laden, or just about anyone who appears on daytime television.
Shakespeare was a man of many words. He both wrote a lot down and knew a lot. People who studied his texts have concluded that he used between 16,000 and 30,000 different words. I don’t know why some of these word counters have come up with 16,000, some with 30,000, and some with various numbers in between. I mean, we know all the books he wrote – it’s not as if he also wrote a few books under pen names like Jean-Paul Sartre or Dean Koontz. Perhaps it’s because literary people aren’t very good at arithmetic, or maybe they get so carried away with the glorious text that they forget where they are and have to go back to the beginning again, something like “11,047, 11,048, 11,049, ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ ... Ah, how beautiful ... Damn! Where was I? Oh well. 1, 2, 3 ...”
Anyway, even Shakespeare found it hard to cover the gray areas. Hamlet was forced to consider only two alternatives, to be or not to be, existence or non-existence. What about partial existence? Most of us live the greater part of our lives in a state of partial existence, such as when cleaning the oven, or watching reality television shows, or watching George Bush at a press conference. So why is such a state so badly served by our language? Similarly, can anyone, for example, adequately describe country-and-western music in one word?
Shakespeare encountered language difficulties quite often, or at least his characters did. Macbeth asked, “Is this a dagger that I see before me?” and then went on to think about whether it was or not, but he couldn’t allow for the fact that it might be a spoon that looked a bit like a dagger. It was a dagger or nothing. What a great book Macbeth might have been if the dark Thane had been forced to murder King Duncan with a spoon.
Talking about George Bush and press conferences, now there’s an example of a man who’s not going to let the limitations of language stand between him and his audience. Dubya can take the simplest words and make them completely unintelligible, and the man does it with such grace that he has to be admired. By the way, can someone please solve the mystery that is baffling millions of us? What on earth are the newcooler weapons that the president often refers to? Are they some sort of bomb disguised as a refrigerator? Or are they just cooler than previous weapons, possibly painted in pastel colors or sporting designer brand logos?It’s terribly ironic that such a great enabler as language, a tool that has taken tens of thousands of years to perfect and which has yielded so many literary masterpieces in the process, still has huge gaps in it. And now, before language has had the chance to correct its omissions, the world has moved on to the biggest bastardization of all, text messaging.
In time, young people will probably learn text messaging and only text messaging. Even such a concise but precise and elegant term as Ciao, muttered through full Latin lips, moistened by a foaming cappuccino, has been replaced by a robotic CU hammered out by a sweaty digit on a cell phone.
In the future, whole lives will be conducted in stunted phrases (OMG*), reducing the number of “words” in the vocabulary to about 50 (404*), the Oxford English Dictionary will go out of business (PU*), and Shakespeare’s writings will be confined to museums where they’re viewed as meaningless hieroglyphics (FUBR*).
How ironic. All one can do is LOL. Oh well, at least I can laugh at it, but does that mean I’m happy? Well, I’m not unhappy.
Notes for the uncool amongst us:
• OMG = Oh my God
• 404 = Clueless
• PU = That stinks
• FUBR = F&*%ed up beyond recognition •
Word play by Brian Staff