Mark Twain said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is…the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”
As I’m going through edits on my latest Kate Hamilton mystery, The Shadow of Memory (coming June 2022), I’ve taken the opportunity to refine my word choices. For example, a heron standing in a drift of loosestrife along the Stour River in Suffolk is now perching on one leg in that loosestrife. Rather than merely describing the heron, I want to paint a picture.
There’s no shortage of words to choose from. English has the largest vocabulary in the world with almost 172,000 words in the dictionary, followed by Russian with 150,000 words and Spanish with 93,000 words. Ironically, in spite of this linguistic richness, a mere 1,000 words make up 89% of today’s written English. Of those words, 43 account for at least half the words in common use.
Language is an ever-changing thing, but is it devolving? Are we losing words we should save?
In graduate school, I traced the development of the English language from the Old English of Beowulf with its German, Norse, Anglo-Norman, and Celtic roots, through the Middle English of Chaucer’s day, to the emergence of early modern English around 1500. In each era, new words were invented and incorporated into the language. During his lifetime, Shakespeare created at least 2,000 new words, including barefaced, leapfrog, zany, bedazzled, frugal, gloomy, fretful, jaded, lovely, and homicide. Phrases he coined have become part of everyday life: catch a cold, break the ice, the game is afoot, heart on my sleeve, for goodness’ sake, a method in the madness, and (surprisingly) knock, knock, who’s there?
Every year new words become part of the English language. And every year, words are lost.
In The Word Museum: The Most Remarkable English Words Ever Forgotten, Jeffrey Kacirk has preserved some of these words—reflections of antiquity, the “remnants of history which casually escaped the shipwreck of time (Sir Francis Bacon).”
Here are ten of my favorites:
2. Fuzzle—to make fuzzy with drink; just tipsy enough to speak indistinctly.
3. Inwit—conscience, as opposed to outwit, knowledge.
4. Liplabour—speaking without the concurrence of the mind; words without sentiment.
5. Mirknight—the darkest hour of the night.
6. Monsterful—wonderful, extraordinary.
7. Pig’s Whisper—a loud whisper, meant to be heard.
8. Ratherest—most of all.
9. Somewhen—at some time or other.
10. Thenadays—in those days, in times past; as opposed to nowadays.
Is there a word or phrase you remember from the past? What words would you preserve?
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