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Lederer on Language
A Celebration of English, Good Grammar, and Wordplay
By Richard Lederer
Marion Street Press Copyright © 2013 Richard Lederer
All rights reserved.
Our Abounding English Language
The other day I went to the bookstore to buy a dictionary. The clerk showed me a really cheap one. I couldn't find the words to thank her.
Then she directed me to a thesaurus. I thought that was an accommodating, altruistic, benevolent, caring, compassionate, considerate, courteous, decent, empathic, gracious, kind, magnanimous, nice, obliging, outreaching, solicitous, sweet, sympathetic, and thoughtful thing to do.
The multitudinous choice of words in English offers both a delightful and daunting challenge to native and nonnative speakers. In William Styron's Sophie's Choice, the heroine, Polish-born Sophie, expresses mock horror at the infinite variety of English words:
"Such a language! ... Too many words. I mean just the word for velocite. I mean fast. Rapid. Quick. All the same thing! A scandal!"
"Swift?" I added.
"How about speedy?" Nathan asked.
"Hasty?" I went on.
"And fleet?" Nathan said. "Though that's a bit fancy."
"Stop it!" Sophie said, laughing." Too much! Too many words, this English. In French it is so simple. You just say vite."
You should not be aghast, amazed, appalled, astonished, astounded, bewildered, blown away, boggled, bowled over, bumfuzzled, caught off base, confounded, dumbfounded, electrified, flabbergasted, floored, flummoxed, overwhelmed, shocked, startled, stunned, stupefied, surprised, taken aback, thrown, or thunderstruck by this o'erflowing cornucopia of synonyms in our marvelous language.
English boasts by far the largest number of words of all languages, 616,500 officially enshrined in the Oxford English Dictionary. That's almost four times the vocabulary size of its nearest competitor, German; five times the size of Russian, in third place; and six times the size of Spanish and French, tied for fourth. As a result, English possesses a plethora of synonyms that allow greater nuances of meaning than are available in other tongues.
A much-lauded-and-applauded New Yorker cartoon puckishly celebrated our linguistic treasure trove. The cartoon's caption read: "Roget's Brontosaurus," and pictured was a big dinosaur in whose thought bubble appeared: "Large, great, huge, considerable, bulky, voluminous, ample, massive, capacious, spacious, mighty, towering, monstrous . ..." If not for the finite capacity of thought bubbles, the artist could have added: "big, Brobdingnagian, colossal, enormous, gargantuan, gigantic, grand, hefty, hulking, humongous, husky, immense, jumbo, leviathan, looming, lumbering, mammoth, mountainous, ponderous, prodigious, sizable, substantial, tremendous, vast, weighty, whopping."
Such a cartoon would be far less likely to appear in a magazine printed in a language other than English. Books like Roget's Thesaurus are foreign to speakers of most other languages. Given the scope of their vocabularies, they have little need of them.
I hesitate to conclude this song of praise to the glories of English with dark news. But I regret to inform you that yesterday, a senior editor of Roget's Thesaurus assumed room temperature, bit the dust, bought the farm, breathed his last, came to the end of the road, cashed in his chips, cooled off, croaked, deep sixed, expired, gave up the ghost, headed for the hearse, headed for the last roundup, kicked off, kicked the bucket, lay down one last time, lay with the lilies, left this mortal plain, met his maker, met Mr. Jordan, passed away, passed in his checks, passed on, perished, permanently changed his address, pulled the plug, pushed up daisies, returned to dust, slipped his cable, slipped his mortal coil, sprouted wings, took the dirt nap, took the long count, pegged out, traveled to kingdom come, turned up his toes, went across the creek, went belly up, went to glory, went the way of all flesh, went to his final reward, went west — and, of course, he died.CHAPTER 2
Doing a Number on English
For those who think that our civilization is obsessed with time, the Concise Oxford English Dictionary recently added support to that theory by announcing that the word time is the most often-used noun in the English language. The dictionary relied on the Oxford English Corpus — a research project into English in the twenty-first century — to come up with the lists.
The Oxford English Corpus gives us the fullest, most accurate picture of the language today. It represents all types of English, from literary novels and specialist journals to everyday newspapers and magazines to the language of chatrooms, e-mails, and Weblogs. And, as English is a global language, used by an estimated one third of the world's population, the Oxford Corpus contains language from all parts of the world — not only from the United Kingdom and the United States, but also from Australia, the Caribbean, Canada, India, Singapore, and South Africa. It is the largest English corpus of its type — the most representative slice of the English language available.
According to the Corpus, the is the most commonly used word overall, followed by be, to, of, and, a, in, that, have, and I. Typical of such frequency lists, the most used words are hardworking function words that hold sentences together. The study also reveals that these ten words and their variations account for 25 percent of all written content.
These top ten are all single-syllable words. In fact, the sixty most frequently used words on the list are monosyllabic, as are ninety-four of the first one hundred. That's because Anglo Saxon concision and simplicity are the heart and soul of our language.
English is the most democratically hospitable language that has ever existed, welcoming words from countries ancient and modern, near and far away. But despite all our loan words, the core of our language remains Anglo-Saxon. Only about 25 percent of our total vocabulary is Anglo-Saxon in origin, but, in most frequency lists, Anglo-Saxon is the source of more than 90 percent of the first hundred words.
Word lists like the Oxford Corpus tell us a great deal about who we English speakers and writers are. While he is the sixteenth-most-used word on the list, she is thirtieth. While the pronoun I comes in at tenth in the Oxford English Corpus, it is first on almost all frequency lists of spoken language.
Focusing on the most frequently occurring nouns in the Oxford Corpus shines a bright light on our values. Among nouns, person is ranked second, man seventh, child twelfth, and woman fourteenth. Government occupies the twentieth spot on the Oxford Corpus noun list, while war, at number forty-nine, trumps peace, which did not make the top hundred.
William Shakespeare spoke of people who "run before the clock," as if the hands of the clock would sweep them away if they did not hustle their bustles. In the English-speaking world, so many of us seem to be working harder and taking fewer and shorter vacations. The Oxford English Corpus confirms that obsession with time and productivity by revealing that time is the most frequently used noun in our language. Year is ranked third, day fifth, work sixteenth, and week seventeenth.
In his poem "To His Coy Mistress," the English poet Andrew Marvell wrote, "But at my back I always hear/Time's winged chariot hurrying near." According to the Oxford English Corpus frequency list, time's winged chariot is running us over.
It is said again and again these days that there are lies, damnable lies, and statistics. Nonetheless, Americans are fascinated with and by statistics and take a special interest in facts that can be quantified. Here are some more insights into our English tongue, expressed statistically:
Number of languages in the world: Approximately 6,800, 50 to 90 percent of which will be extinct in a hundred years.
Number of people around the world who can be reached by English in some form: 1.5 billion.
Percentage of those people worldwide who learned English as a second (or third or fourth) language: 52.5. In other words, first-language English speakers are in the minority. Both China and India have more English speakers than the United States.
Number of countries or territories in which English has official status: 87.
Percentage of the world's English speakers who live in the largest English-speaking country, the United States: 20.
Percentage of world English that is American English: 66.
Percentage of world English that is British English: 16.
Percentage of students in the European Union studying English: 83.
Percentage of people in the European Union who are fluent in English: 75.
Percentage of nonnative speakers around the world who are fluent in English: 25.
Percentage of cyberspace homepages in English: 82
Percentage of all books in the world printed in English: 50.
Percentage of international telephone calls made in English: 52.
Percentage of radio programs worldwide broadcast in English: 60.
Percentage of global box office from films in English: 63.
Percentage of global e-mail in English: 68.
Percentage of international mail and telexes written and addressed in English: 70.
Percentage of global computer text stored in English: 80.
Percentage of the 12,500 international organizations in the world that make use of the English language: 85.
Percentage of those international organizations that use English exclusively: 33.
Percentage of all English words throughout history that no longer exist: 85.
Number of words listed in the Oxford English Dictionary, not counting its supplements: 616,500.
Average number of words added to English each year: 1,000.
Number of words in the largest dictionaries of German, the world's second largest language: 185,000.
Number of words in the largest dictionaries of Russian, the world's third largest language: 130,000.
Number of words in the largest dictionaries for French and Spanish, tied for the world's fourth largest language: 100,000.
Borrowed words in English versus native (Anglo Saxon) words, expressed as a ratio: 3:1.
Number of languages in the English vocabulary: 300.
Percentage of English words made from Latin word parts: 50.
Number of words the average English speaker actually recognizes: 10,000-20,000.
Percentage of the average English speaker's conversation made up of the most frequently used 737 words: 96.CHAPTER 3
A Guide to Britspeak, A to Zed
The summer after we were married, my bride, Simone, and I spent ten smashingly lovely honeymoon days on vacation (what the Brits call "holiday") exploring the southwest of Britain. We took a drive and walk through time from the ancient stone mysteries at Stonehenge and Avebury to the modern glitz of Manchester's Granada Studios — Great Britain's answer to our Universal Studios theme park.
Confident that the island natives spoke our language, we expected few communication problems. We did, however, encounter a number of strange words and locutions that you should know when you visit the U.K. (United Kingdom). To clear the fog and unravel some transatlantic tangles, I offer here a selective list of differences between our English and British English. After all, I don't want you to miss the delights of Great Britain just because of a little thing like a language barrier.
If you choose to rent an automobile in the U.K., with it will come a whole new vocabulary. Be sure to fill it with petrol, not gas. Remember that the trunk is the boot, the hood is the bonnet (what the Brits call a hood is our convertible top), tires are tyres (and they have tracks, not treads), a headlight is a headlamp, the transmission is the gearbox, the windshield is the windscreen, a fender is a wing, and the muffler is a silencer.
Station wagons (waggons in Britspell) that speed by you are called estate cars or hatchbacks, trucks are lorries, and streetcars trams. Most British drivers (motorists) belong to AA — the Automobile Association, of course!
Our buses are their coaches. When a hotel in the British Isles posts a sign proclaiming, "No football coaches allowed," the message is not directed at the Vince Lombardis and Joe Paternos of the world. "No football coaches allowed" means "No soccer buses permitted."
While you are driving down the motorway (highway) and busily converting kilometers into miles, you must note that, in matters automotive, the Queen's English can be as far apart as the lanes on a dual carriageway (divided highway). A traffic circle is a roundabout; an intersection a junction; an overpass a flyover; a circular road around a city is a ringway or orbital; a place to pull off the road, a layby; a road shoulder, a verge; and a railroad (railway) crossing, a level crossing. All the time, you must be sure to stay to the left, not the right! As the joke goes, why did the Siamese twins go to England? Answer: So that the other one could drive.
When you have to use the subway in London, you should follow signs to the underground (informally, the "tube"). When you get on and off the underground, you'll hear a polite voice on the loudspeaker warning you to "mind the gap." That message means "Look out for the space between the train and the platform." As you make your way upward to the streets of London, be aware that "Way out" is not a vestigial hippie expression. "Way out" signifies an exit.
If you decide to walk somewhere, you'll have to bear in mind that what a North American calls a sidewalk is an English pavement, while an American pavement is an English roadway. If someone directs you to the Circus, don't head for a big top. Rather, look for a large circle (Piccadilly Circus is rather like Columbus Circle in New York) where several streets converge.
At the end of World War II, Winston Churchill tells us, the Allied leaders nearly came to blows over a single word during their negotiations when some diplomats suggested that it was time to "table" an important motion. For the British, table meant that the motion should be put on the table for discussion. For the Americans it meant just the opposite — that it should be put on the shelf and dismissed from discussion.
Also at the end of the war, the British government made an urgent request for thousands of bushels of corn. So the U.S. government shipped just what the Brits asked for — corn. What the British officials really wanted was wheat. Had they wanted corn, they would have called it "maize" or specified "Indian corn."
Many of the most beguiling misunderstandings can arise where identical words have different meanings in the two cultures and lingoes. When an Americann exclaims, "I'm mad about my flat," she is upset about her punctured tire. When a Brit exclaims, "I'm mad about my flat," she is exulting about her apartment. When a Brit rails against "that bloody villain," he is describing the dastard's immoral character, not his physical condition. When a Brit points out that you have "a ladder in your hose," the situation is not as bizarre as you might at first think. Quite simply, you have a run in your stocking.
Some of this bilingual confusion can get downright embarrassing: When Brits tell you that they will "come by in the morning and knock you up," they are informing you that they will wake you up with a knock on your door. (Similarly, a knock up in tennis means, simply, to hit the ball around.)
When a Brit offers to show you his collection of bloomers, he means his examples of bloopers, or verbal faux pas. When a Londoner wants to take you "to the BM," she is talking about the British Museum. When a Brit volunteers to take you to a solicitor, that's a trip to a general-practice lawyer. When a Brit asks you if you need a rubber, she is trying to make your writing safer. English rubbers are erasers. When a Brit tells you how marvelously "homely" you are, that's a compliment. He means that you are domestic and home-loving. In the UK it is quite possible to be both homely and attractive at the same time.
Excerpted from Lederer on Language by Richard Lederer. Copyright © 2013 Richard Lederer. Excerpted by permission of Marion Street Press.
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