I’m not a rabid football fan – I always feel badly for the team that loses – but this year I had an invitation to a Super Bowl party, a Terrible Towel to wave and a new recipe to try. It seemed the perfect time to make my way to a friend’s home, settle back and watch the fun. They had a new, super-sized tv guaranteed to make watching the game enjoyable no matter which team you were cheering for, and I appreciated Al Michaels and John Madden in the broadcast booth, even though no one seemed to listen to their coverage unless there was a disputed call or an especially noteworthy play.
No one listened, that is, until sometime in the second half, when a strange thing happened. A player took off for a medium-sized run of perhaps 15 or 20 yards, and Michaels said, “Well, he ran that one with alacrity”. Suddenly, the entire room fell silent as everyone turned toward the television and three people demanded in unison, “ALACRITY?”
It was an appropriate word, properly used and perfectly in context, but it was pretty darned strange to see that wonderful four-syllable team doing its own version of broken field running through a maze of simple, declarative sentences and spare, one or two syllable phrases. That single word stopped an entire party in its tracks, leaving it scattered and stunned at Michaels’ audacity.
The response reminded me of people’s curiosity when I used the word skry in my latest poem, The Grammarian in Winter. I had several publicly posted comments about it, and even more emails, all from folks who essentially said, “SKRY?” When I was writing the poem and the word came to me, even I wasn’t completely certain of its meaning. I looked it up, found alternative spellings, confirmed the definition and plunked it into my poem, where it serves it purpose beautifully. It’s an unusual word, perhaps even archaic, and it’s no longer heard in casual conversation unless you’re running with a crowd that casts entrails out behind the garage or takes three day weekends to attend Wicca conventions. But it’s a good word, and I was happy to give it a home.
About the time I posted The Grammarian in Winter, another blogger posted about exemplars. I knew the word, but not in Sandiquiz’ context, which had to do with representative pieces of needlework. I hadn’t heard or read the word in ages, but only two days after Sandi made use of it, I discovered it a second time in Arti’s wonderful Ripple Effects, tucked into a blog about Academy Award nominations. Speaking of Slumdog Millionaire, she noted the film as “a fantastic rags to riches exemplar, which garnered ten nominations.”
It’s a common phenomenon. After hearing a word for the first time, or seeing it roam the countryside after a long absence, suddenly it’s everywhere. It’s as though the word itself – poor little skry, or that classic exemplar – has just escaped prison and is running the country yelling, “Free at last!” The more I think about it, the funnier it seems. I envision all those poor, neglected words just waiting for someone to come along with a few hand-lettered signs and rhythmic chants, pleading on their behalf as though they’re Abie Hoffman and the Chicago Seven.
The potential pool of words-waiting-to-be-liberated is overwhelming. There are about 47,156 archaic words in the Oxford English dictionary, give or take a few hundred, not to mention all those “other” words that are supposed to be part of our language but mostly just lie about, waiting to be called up for duty in cheap novels or unreadable dissertations. Teachers talk about passive vocabulary – words we understand – and active vocabulary – words which we actually use – and estimate an educated adult will be familiar with between 50,000 and 250,000 words. How many of those words we use is another matter altogether.
Estimates on vocabulary usage range so widely they’re almost worthless: from 10% to 90%. If we assume the lower end of the scale, 10% of 50,000 available words would be a working vocabulary limited to 5,000 words. If we take a middling course and assume 50% usage of 100,000 words, that still is a vocabulary of only 50,000 words.
Even 5,000 words sounds like quite a list, of course, but would skry be on that list? Certainly not. Exemplar? Perhaps, but only if the Brits are around. Alacrity? People watching the superbowl recognized it, but I’m sure it’s been a while since anyone in that room used the word. When I ask myself,”What word haven’t I used in a while?” I’m interested in my own answer. Whatever happened to pernicious? What about voluble, exigent and substitutionary? Has anyone seen internecine lately, or know where concomitant is hiding out?
On one level, this is pure silliness. On another, it’s an issue that should be taken seriously. The more words we have at our disposal, the greater our ability to describe the world around us, create new worlds or shape the world we’re given. “Give it to me in words of one syllable”, someone says, meaning, “Make it understandable”. But there are times when single-syllable words can’t make it understandable. They haven’t the depth, breadth or nuance to communicate what needs saying. Back in the day, when bumper stickers were artful and funny, there was one for linguists that said, “Don’t send an adverb to do an adjective’s job“. But that’s what we too often do – use the wrong word because we don’t have the right word, the true word, the revelatory word that could open the world to us, and us to ourselves.
It’s a commonplace that language is a tool. Like hammers, chainsaws and levers, we need our word-tools to help us accomplish the routine tasks of life and carry on utilitarian communication. But language also is a palette of nuance, a chisel ready to carve meaning from misunderstanding, a rosined bow to draw across a tuned and taut reality. We learn language, we use language and we love language not because we want to appear “smart” but because we long to be human, and it is language that helps define our humanity. To put it in the clearest terms possible, in a world filled with text messages, Twitter, acronyms, lolcats and advertising firms determined to market to the lowest common denominator, it’s time to rebel.
It’s time to free some words, in the service of our humanity.