My ten lb dictionary serves as a door stop, an extra step on the ladder, a weight for gluing things, and a handy tool for flattening out wet crumpled mail. These days, I search for most definitions online. I still keep the real item handy, however, to remind me of the extraordinary variety of the English language. The Oxford English Dictionary boasts more than 171,000 words.
This is an astounding number. It is estimated that most Americans use less than 20,000. I feel an occasional pang of remorse about my lack of range, and I go looking through its pages for words that might come in handy. What surprises me is how many words we have for the same things, or words with subtle differences.
This is why I begin my author visits by talking about the English language. It is a rich hodge-podge of words drawn from the many languages of visitors (and invaders) to England’s shores. Germanic tribes—the Angles, Saxons & Jutes—Vikings, Romans, Normans; they have all left words in our language that are commonly used today. Then, add on words gathered by the English during the colonial period.
Several days of the week, for example, come from the Vikings. Wednesday (Wodensday), Thursday (Thor’s day) and Friday (Freya’s day). The Norman invasion introduced French words for many things, most commonly for food (mutton, veal, beef, salad, and soup, to name a few). The Roman invasion brought Latin words like exit, senator, alias, antique, villa, and picture. And it’s not as though we ever have enough.
The OED added idiocracy, nothingburger, butterbeer, Kubrickian, Spielbergian and Tarantinoesque to its September 2018 list. Each month brings hundreds of new words and meanings for old ones.
I’m very fond of workhorse words, those with multiple meanings. The word run, one of my favorites, has dozens of meanings both as a verb and a noun. Applied to an engine, a nose, an athlete, a candidate, a chicken, or a ski location, it means something entirely different. Shakespeare made ample use of workhorse words, too. Consider Mercutio’s mordant joke after being wounded in Romeo & Juliet. “Ask me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man,” he says.
Do we have too many words? Let me turn that around to you. Would a painter say we have too many colors or too many mediums? A composer protest that we have too many notes or instruments? The rich variety of our language gives spice, beauty, and countless possibilities to discourse. Anyone who uses words in fresh and inventive ways wants a rich palette.
So, go out and use them!