Recently re-read Ciccone’s ROYKO, the best wrap up on the life and times of Mike Royko, a very funny, very insightful, very inventive Chicago newspaper columnist… and was reminded of another genius columnist, Richard Lederer, the beloved language maven.
In one of his books, WORD WIZZARD, Lederer wondered at the number of words in the English language.
And that reminds me of a newspaper statistic I was discussing with Brenda the other day. It went something like this: every day women use about twice the number of words men do. Brenda said, “Yea, ‘cause we have to repeat everything to you.”
I said, “What?”
But back to Richard Lederer’s more erudite musings… As we enter the 21st century he guessed that we have close to two million at our disposal although “… three-quarters of our words belong to specialized fields such as medicine, psychology, and technology or to trade jargons.”
So with 500,000 general usage English words, how many do we Americans use in everyday conversation? Lederer responds, “To answer this question, we must distinguish between two kinds of vocabulary: those words we recognize or recall, and those we actually use. The average person possesses a vocabulary of 10-20,000 words but actively uses only a small fraction of these, the others being recognition or recall vocabulary. In fact, a number of linguists claim that 9 words make up 25 percent of our speech the, of, and, a, to, in, it, for, and he.
“According to language scholars, 34 more words make up another 25 percent, so that 43 words make up 50 percent of our speech. These 34 words are all one-syllable and include have, I, they, with, not, she, on, at, this, and by. A recent statistical study of U.S. telephone speech revealed that 737 words make up 96 percent of all conversations.
And we talk in clichés. “Work with me on this, I’ve been around the block, and I know a thing or two. I know I wear many hats, but I’m not talking trash here. I’m not the eight-hundred-pound gorilla out to bust your chops. I feel your pain, and at this point in time, I’ve got you on my radar screen, and I know you da’ man! Hey people, this isn’t rocket science or brain surgery. Call me crazy, but it’s simply a no-brainer – a dropkick and a slam dunk. Sound like a plan? I bring a lot to the table. I come to play, I bring my A-game, and the ball’s in your court.
That’s us, now.
Lederer asks us to consider Shakespeare, “Ongoing research demonstrates that there are 20,138 lemmata (dictionary headwords) in Shakespeare’s published works.
“Of these 20,138 basewords that Shakespeare employs in his plays, sonnets, and other poems, his is the first known use of over 1,700 of them.
Let me rephrase, Shakespeare invented 1,700 new words.
Following are just a few of the English words seen in Shakespeare’s writing for the first time anywhere: Accommodation, amazement, assassination, auspicious, baseless, bedroom, courtship, critic, dwindle, eventful, exposure, frugal, generous, hurry, impartial, lapse, lonely, laughable, monumental, obscene, pious, road, sanctimonious, sneak, sportive, submerge, useless.
“Now add to these individual words Shakespeare’s daring originality with compounds. He created such splendid audacities as barefaced, civil tongue, eye-sore, faint-hearted, fancy-free, foregone conclusion, father Time, foul play, green-eyed, half cocked, heartsick, high time, lackluster, laughingstock, leapfrog, lie low, strange bedfellows, knit your brow, short shrift, stone-hearted, etc, etc.
Plus he had his clichés brevity is the soul of wit; there’s the rub; to thine own self be true; it smells to heaven; the very witching time of night; the primrose path; every dog will have his day; to be or not to be; sweets for the sweet; the be-all and end-all; to the manner born; salad days; break ice with one fell swoop; if you never stand on ceremonies; if you play it fast and loose; until the crack of dawn; the milk of human kindness; a heart of gold; laugh yourself into stitches; too much of a good thing.
Amazing that one guy created all that wonderfully imaginative stuff 400 years ago. He is the Godfather of the English language. Its grandest master.
And what have the billion or so English speakers of 2010 added lately? Well “…Yada, Yada, Yada…” comes to mind. That’s about it. Plus, maybe, “Shit happens.”
But to be fair – and positive about our generation – have you seen what non-intrusive surgery can do nowsaday? Have you recently had a free, clear video call from someone half a world away? Flown cross- country in four hours for less than a couple hundred bucks? Seen the pictures from the Hubble? Said whatever you want to anyone about anything – politics, religion, world leaders? Seen what the iphones can do? And the new digital tablets, Jesus.
Obviously our genius comes in other-than-language forms.
As a final thought, here are some Lederer cus’ words from nearly forgotten English that you could find useful:
a badot cumber-ground is a silly person who takes up space
a furciferous lordswike is a rascally traitor
a balatronic hoddypeak is a buffoonlike blockhead
a trichechine jollux is a walruslike fat person
a sclestious volpone is a wicked schemer
a testudineous windlestraw is a slow-moving, tall, unhealthy-looking person
a scolocophagous stadafor is a worm eating impostor
a drumbling gilly-gaupus is a sluggish fool
and finally something that just rolls off the tongue: a roinish and uliginous drazel is a scabby, slimy slut.
But despite all this, my all-time favorite cus’ word is “sumbitch,” hear around the junk yards and tobacco fields where I grew up. It was usually accessorized, like “sissy sumbith,” and “white trash sumbith,” and “lying sumbitch” and the lowest, “gober’ment sumbitch.”
Thought you’d want to know.
Your humble drumbling, scolocophagous, roinish, badot gilly-gaupus MULE, who, by any other name would smell as foul.