Word Play: Excursions Into English

August 18, 2020 Updated: August 18, 2020

Enough. Enough of COVID-19. Enough of the Marxist rioting in Portland. Enough of “cancel culture,” corporations and celebrities embracing political correctness at every turn, and sports teams taking a knee during the national anthem for reasons no one can discern anymore.

No more, my friends. Not today.

It’s time to have some fun.

It’s August, and some of you will take your pleasure in backyard barbeques with friends and family. Where permitted, some of you will hie yourselves off to the shore or the mountains. Some will pack kit and kids into the van, and slip away for the weekend to the cool creek and broad meadows of Grandpa’s farm.

As for me, I intend today to wade in the delightful waters of that most remarkable of seas: the English language.

Amusements

If we leave aside archaic words, and depending on which source we believe in regard to numbers, English has approximately 171,000 words available for usage. If we Google “How many different words does the average person use every day?” we find debate about this question as well, though most experts believe that we know the meanings of 30,000 to 40,000 words, but typically use only 5,000 in most of our speech and writing.

This last limitation spills over into the classroom and publishing outfits. It is common for editors, teachers, and writers to remind others to use short, everyday words in their essays and compositions, contending that long or unusual words will either confuse readers or give the impression that the author is showboating.

Too bad, in a way.

In “The Best Words,” Robert Hartwell Fiske (1948–2016), once the editor of “Vocabula Review” and author of several books on language, celebrates unusual words that might liven up any conversation. Here are just a few of them.

You’re at a party speaking to a friend about the ridiculous edicts of your governor, and your friend comments on the dangers of these edentulous (toothless) laws. You comment that such is life in a kakistocracy (government by the worst, most unscrupulous,  or least qualified citizens.) The pulchritudinous (having great physical beauty, comely) young woman who has joined your circle and whom you’ve studied throughout the evening (you are, after all, a philogynist, one with a fondness for women)—does she look bewildered or impressed? Then she says, “The governor’s circle of mephitic (poisonous, noxious, having a foul odor) advisers are just as much at fault as he,” and you realize you’ve just met the girl you want to marry.

Best Words cvr
“The Best Words” by Robert Hartwell Fiske celebrates unusual words.        

Word Wit

Fiske plays with words straight up, offering definitions and then giving readers examples from books, magazines, and newspapers.

Not so with lexicographer Peter Bowler. In “The Superior Person’s Book of Words,” he taps unusual words on the shoulder and then dances with them. His definitions are clear and sharp, but his examples of usage are intended to amuse himself and his readers.

superior-persons-book-of-words
In his “The Superior Person’s Book of Words,” Peter Bowler finds amusing ways to highlight the rare word.

“Famulus n. A medieval sorcerer’s apprentice. A pleasing appellation for your husband when he is helping you in the kitchen by peeling potatoes, drying the dishes, etc.—or when you are entertaining. ‘Come into the living room and make yourselves comfortable while I have my famulus mix some drinks.’”

“Fabulist n. An elegant euphemism for liar.”

“Evanescent adj. Fleeting, vanishing, impermanent. When your wife’s weekly number is the Grand Prize-winner in the lottery but you admit to her that you omitted to buy her ticket that week, her effervescence is evanescent.”

Note Bowler’s tart style, which prevails through this book and the others in “The Superior Person’s” series.

Communications 101: Precision

Unlike Bowler, many of us are often sloppy with our words.

Take, for example, the use of the word “like,” which many, especially young people, inject throughout a conversation and which is more contagious than any virus. “I was, like, in the store,” says Sally. “And like, this guy wasn’t wearing, you know, a mask, so I was like, what’s up with you, dude? Don’t you, like, read the sign on the door or like, listen to the news?”

Arrrggghhhh.

Once, young people from the ancient Greeks to American politicians of the 19th century were taught and valued the tools of rhetoric and oratory. Today, those skills gather dust in the attic of education, a strange fate given that we live in “The Age of Communication.”

bust of Cicero
A bust of Cicero, before A.D. 50. Cicero is considered one of Rome’s greatest orators and prose stylists. The Capitoline Museums, Rome. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

We may lack the training of a Demosthenes, Cicero, or Lincoln, but thinking before we speak and editing our written words, even those in emails to friends, allows us to communicate with grace and clarity.

Digs, Rebuffs, and Put-Downs

Ours is the age of insult, both in the public square and on social media. We hurl out imprecations and barbs faster than a tennis machine can spit out yellow balls.

Unfortunately, we see a lack of style at work in this arena as well. Our verbal slings and arrows are all too often reduced to a handful of words, the ugliest of which derive from Anglo-Saxon, short, nasty shots that reveal us as jackanapes or popinjays.

This crude, degraded language may offend another, but certainly it offends our rich language.

If we must prick an offender with a verbal rapier, let’s look to the godfather of insults: William Shakespeare. Here are just a few of his many creative put-downs:

“Thou art a boil, a plague sore, an embossed carbuncle.” (“King Lear”)

“Out of my sight! Thou dost infect my eyes.” (“Richard III”)

“A pox o’ your throat, you bawling, blasphemous, incharitable dog!” (“The Tempest”)

Surely, if we put our minds to work and our pens to paper, we could conjure up similar amusing jibes and defamations suited to our time.

Lady Anne. King Richard III.
Lady Anne utters a delightful insult to wicked Richard III: “Out of my sight! Thou dost infect my eyes.” J.W. Wright’s drawing from “The Heroines of Shakespeare” by Charles Heath. (Public Domain)

Ebullient Elegance

Earlier this year, I read and reviewed David Lane’s play “Dido: The Tragedy of a Woman.” That review opened with these lines:

“What kind of a nut writes a play about antiquity using blank verse, sentences as convoluted as any in Shakespeare, and words which, outside of Elizabethan theater, have sounded in no human ear in hundreds of years?

“Apparently, my kind of nut.”

Here is a guy enthralled by the beauty of the English language.

Look at this sample of Lane’s verse-play, taken from the scene where Nissus speaks to Aeneas after the gods have ordered him to leave Carthage and Dido, and resume his quest for a homeland:

“Aeneas—if thou art the man and not
The region ghost that quits its grave to live
Again calamity—thou wannest white
As alabaster; sweat thy tangled brow
Bedews, as if my poring eyes might read
Therein disaster. Is’t the Kindly Ones
Who shake the hissing hair have lately paid
Thee sudden courtesy and made thy eyes
So start and wilder? Find thy tongue and tell,
For I have care to know thee whole or ill.”

Not everyone’s cup of coffee, to be sure, but in “Dido” I found an exuberant love of our mother tongue whose high spirits were infectious.

Waters of Exhilaration

Earlier, I compared the English language to a sea made up of sounds, syllables, and sentences in which we can immerse ourselves time and again. I like to imagine language in this way, an ocean whose sandy beach is always glittering and white with sunshine, whose blue waves invite us to kick off our shoes, roll up our trousers, and wade into waters that never fail to delight, a shore where we can pick up and marvel at new words like a child finding a sand dollar.

There are no storms on this coast, no black clouds, no tsunamis or hurricanes. There is only the sweetness of exploration, the beauty and pleasure of words. In my imagination, I wade in the roiling tides of this immense ocean, seeing what the waves bring to shore and taking immense delight when something new or different attracts my attention.

“Come on in, everyone,” I want to shout. “The water’s fine.”

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.