Free the Oxford English 47,156


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.


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13 thoughts on “Free the Oxford English 47,156

  1. Hear, hear!!!


    And “Listen, listen!!!”

    I can’t help it – I have a wacky sense of humor, sometimes. But sometimes I think we all suffer a little from the most common malady in the world. We know what’s right, we know the value of something, we know what we should do – but laziness, or forgetfulness or being overwhelmed with too much to do gets in our way and we let things slide. My little interior voice is always saying, “You need to hear this”, but I can be bad about listening!

    Thanks for stopping by, and your delightful affirmation!


  2. Sign me up, ma’am! I’m a little out of shape these days, but I’m willing to give the Random House Dictionary of the English Language my very best!

    Hi, Anno,

    If there are “foodies”, I think there certainly could be “wordies”! And as you imply, stretching a vocabulary and exercising grammar and spelling skills are important if we’re going to improve our performance. It’s just a lot more fun doing it this way, rather than sitting in a classroom with a sheet of rules to memorize!


  3. Well, Linda, you’ve certainly opened up a can of … words. And you’re right in observing that “Exemplar? Perhaps, but only if the Brits are around.” Does my writing give away such hints? I confess I’m a child of colonialism. Maybe the Brits did have their influence on me, as I was born and raised in the then British Colony of Hong Kong before I immigrated to Canada as a teenager. So, the can you’ve opened up contains more than just words. For me, it’s a can of personal history, of education, of language, of bi-cultural experiences… enough thoughts to fire up another post.

    And… count me in for the freeing of the Oxford English 47,156. I’m all for the classics, be they writing or music.


    When I read your comment I realized I hadn’t made explicit that Sandi, who did the post on needlework exemplars, is British herself. But, “British-isms” are all around, even in ds’s “Hear, hear” above. And there’s something about the rhythms of British English as much as the words that makes it distinctive – and pleasing, at least to my ear.

    I first bumped up against the British colonial influence in Sierra Leone, when I was working in Liberia and spent time in Freetown. In the early 1800s Freetown became a Crown Colony and the interior of the country a British protectorate. By the time I showed up, asking for iced tea, there wasn’t a chance in the world I was going to get anything other than hot tea, with a glass of ice on the side. Everyone involved in that transaction was a little puzzled. But history runs deep, in language as well as customs. It will be fun to go back and re-read your entries with this added knowledge – perhaps I can scry another British-ism or two!


  4. Hello Arti – I’m from Canada, and used to live in Hong Kong! :-)

    Linda, one of the things they drill into you at journalism school is: never use a longer, less familiar word when a shorter, more common one will do. There are exceptions, of course – to avoid repeating the same word or phrase too often, for example. I bet you’d find that pretty confining.

    I’d be happy if people simply learned the proper way to spell and punctuate the most everyday words out there. Why is it that lose and loose are so often confused? It’s and its?

    Hi, Ian,

    I suspect most problems with spelling and punctuation come from simple inattention and true carelessness – as in, “I just don’t care”. I have two friends who are terrible spellers. One lives by her spell checker and a pile of dictionaries. The other says, “Oh, whatever. They’ll figure it out.” So there you are.

    For another peek into my views on all this, you could visit my entry called Longer Sentences, Bigger Words. Just my opinion, you understand!

    “Big”, multi-syllabic or unusual words have gotten a bad reputation because they’re so often misused, used only to impress or stacked up in huge paragraphs to intimidate a reader. If the point of writing is to communicate, none of that is good. Another tool I’ve started using is the readability test, including the one found here. The site provides the algorithms as well as a simple, “insert your URL here” way to determine the reading level of any post. All of mine have come in at the high school/undergraduate college level, which is analagous to Time or Newsweek magazines, with an occasional slide into the WSJ, The Guardian and the Times. That’s fine – I wouldn’t want the reading level to be higher, and if it ever were, I’d go back and revise until I had a more accessible piece.

    I do get emails on a regular basis (as in, every couple of weeks) from folks who say, “I didn’t know this word, but now I do.” If I can introduce people to a new word now and then, that’s good. If they’re being introduced to so many they’re having to pull out the dictionary every other sentence, that’s bad. I love my words, but the readers come first!

    Speaking of the Brits, I enjoyed reading your entries about your trip to London.


  5. If my students are dawdling along the corridors or if they are slouchy about getting out their books for class, I’ll tell them to move with alacrity. My mother has a whole story about my Uncle Alvin and that word ‘alacrity’. So your post brought me a smile and that one word hooked me and kept me reading right through to the delectable end.

    I learnt many words from listening to my teachers and I’m happy to carry on the tradition. To this day I remember my grade nine teacher saying at the end of a test; “your time has expired”. To a teenager ‘expired’ is such an elegant word; I would never have remembered that moment if Ms. Richards had said “your time is up”. And it gives me great pleasure to see my students using words they’ve learnt from me; one boy has been attached on ‘stereotype’ ever since he heard me use it last year, and he’s got from misusing it to where he’s quite comfortable with it.

    You’re right, words are both utilitarian and ornamental; the more of them we have at our disposal, the better and the prettier we can get the job done!


    Isn’t it amazing the influence our teachers have on us? In some cases, it’s taken me decades to recognize how deeply it runs, but I’m so grateful now. And words, like a song or a piece of art, can capture whole complexes of experience and emotion that we never lose as long as we have the word.

    It must be a delight to see things with a teacher’s eyes, too, and to be able to watch students internalize their lessons over time. I have a friend who began teaching in a very small school. Now, she’s in a large system in a city. She says her greatest regret is that once students are no longer in her classroom, she rarely sees them. She didn’t start in a one-room school, by any means, but students were divided into two groups: K-8 and 9-12. It was very, very different, and she says she misses it – especially the joy of watching older students help teach the younger ones!

    I love your comment about words being both utilitarian and “ornamental”. It makes me want to run right over and begin reading about architectural design – bet there are some insights there that could be applied to our lovely words! I’ll have to save that for later, though – it’s time for me to work.


  6. Yes! Great observation.

    We can manage to communicate with few words, but all those extra words create color and silliness and depth and emotion. We long to reveal ourselves, to connect with others. Words are our favorite way.


    Loved seeing “silliness” in your list. Big, pretty, fancy, ornamental and loooong words don’t necessarily mean academic, deep, profound, complicated or boring. Word-play is becoming a lost art, and yet it’s one of my favorite forms of play. Part of that comes from having a father who was a great lover of puns. I escaped being sent to my room once when I turned around, looked him straight in the eye, and with all the despair a ten-year old could muster said, “Oh, Daddy! Don’t pun-ish me!” When he stopped laughing, he gave me a hug and said, “Get outdoors and play”. I’ve never doubted the power of words since!


  7. Plenty of food for thought here! I find myself circling words in New Yorker articles, and admiring the writers who knew how to make them flow so gracefully — and weren’t afraid to write well, rather than dumbing down. (Granted, the New Yorker audience is fairly well educated, but still, the temptation could be great!)

    Language as a palette — I find this a beautiful and fascinating concept. There are so many variations of color, and when they blend together, even more. Why say “blue” when azure or teal or slate might tell the story better? Much to think on here. Thank you!


    I’ve read the New Yorker for years. We even managed to get it when I was working in Liberia. The joke was that, when you no longer understood their cartoons, it was time to go home for some cultural updating.

    For years I looked at the cartoons first, and the articles later, if at all. Now, I don’t find the cartoons nearly as funny, and begin with the columns and feature pieces. There’s always at least one worth saving for a re-read or two, and some land in the “this needs to be explored further” file.

    Ds had a lovely entry in her blog about colors that started me thinking about colors, and now here you are, asking such pertinent questions. I’ll be thinking about this right along with you!


  8. What an absolutely WONDERFUL post! I found your blog via alphainventions, and I am so glad I did! You write wonderfully; not only that, you even write posts longer than mine! It’s nice to know that I’m not the only one just writing because the soul demands it.

    I’ll continue to look at your blog (as it’s already been bookmarked). I’d like to extend an invitation for you to read mine:

    It’s so nice to find intelligent and passionate words on the Internet! Thanks.


    Thanks so much for the kind words, and especially for helping me confirm that AlphaInventions has “real people” reading blogs. It’s an amazing system, and has been a help in getting The Task at Hand “out there”.

    I enjoyed looking at your blog, and will come back to read more. Events like 9/11 certainly continue to reverberate through people’s lives, and it may be we never plumb the depths of the effect it had on our country.

    Because I decided at the outset I wanted The Task at Hand to be a platform for writing, I’m not a daily poster. I try to provide new content every 4-5 days, so if you happen by and the same post is up, be assured that it won’t be long until it’s replaced. And, even though I try to respond to comments within a day, sometimes I push the envelope a little! But I’ll always respond.

    Again, many thanks for the visit.


  9. At an estate sale twenty years ago, I purchased for a few dollars the second edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary (1934). It has been my faithful writing companion since that time. The editors claimed its 3,350 pages had over 600,000 entries. The brown leather cover with gold stamping has aged elegantly. It squats on a stand next to my desk, rarely opened.

    In my list of favorites located in the top bar of my computer is a dictionary/thesaurus I can access with a click of my pointer finger. The feel of the onion skin-thin but smooth, strong, cotton pages, have been sacrificed at the altar of easy, quick, lazy. It really frightens me to think that this is the way all books may go: e-books, kindles, etc. No more bookshelves or libraries. Brrrrr, it makes me shiver.

    Tired of hearing the same vulgarities over and over in my classroom, I started a list on the board of “acceptable” swear words. The students delighted in using a big word that many of their peers didn’t know, and apparently it was just as stress relieving and insulting to say, “get the fiddlestick outta my face!” as it was to use the same old, boring, other f—word.

    So even if physical books go out of style, I hope we all still remember to use that “palette of nuance” in our writing and conversation. Thank you for the crackerjack post, Linda!


    I don’t think books will disappear. Every now and then, I see something that is SO counter-cultural it amazes even as it inspires. For example, in a town close to me, the post office has brought in a table with two chairs. The table is piled high with books for restless children to read while they wait for their parents to be done with business. And best of all, in the afternoon, just after school is let out, there are a couple of women who come down to the post office and volunteer their time, to read aloud to the children. I once saw a gradeschooler fold up an electronic gizmo of some sort, walk over to the table and pick up a book! There’s hope for civilization.

    I love your story of “acceptable” swear words. It reminds me of that wonderful scene in the film “A Christmas Story” where Ralphie forgets to say “fudge” and lets loose with the real thing. And here’s one you’ll enjoy – another reader mentioned using the word “whisterpoop”. She said it means a whack upside the head, and the urban dictionary confirms that. But best of all, it’s an old word, found in Sir Walter Scott’s Tales of Mid-Lothian (chapter 31!). Another example of what goes around, comes around – a word from the 18th century being used on the streets, by folks who probably haven’t a clue.

    While our love of words impels us to write, the same love of words (with a whole lot of competitiveness thrown in) has others playing the dozens and poetry slamming – what a great world!


  10. Alacrity? perhaps if he had said promptitude…

    Two poems came to me from words I had to look up in Chambers, “Above the transom” [now incoporated in “The Merry Endeavour”] As soon as I discovered what transom was I had a lovely poem.

    The other word was Turgidity, …as in a stem that is swollen… Turgid stem and it was like Moses striking the rock and water poured forth, I simply haven’t been able to re-capture the cloud of inspiration that suddenly engulfed me. 370+ lines the equivalent of 7 poems x 7 stanzas each with 7 lines. And for writing down it was the fastest work I’ve done, straight down on paper and straight up on to the page although I have done a bit of chipping at it. So there. That’s what near obsolete or seldom used words can do. Apologies for self promotion, but after all you did start me off. :)

    Totton linnet,

    Isn’t it amazing what a phrase, a glimpse, a word, can do? I have a few “drafts” in my files that are nothing more than phrases – I don’t know what they are going to become, but as soon as I heard them I knew that they were going to become something. As you say, inspiration can be that enveloping cloud. It’s also true that the cloud sometimes will hover, visible but still too high to produce much of anything, and then it’s a waiting game.

    I read and enjoyed Above the Transom – it’s fun to know how it emerged. As for self-promotion? No apologies needed. How are we going to know you’re out there if you don’t tell us? Besides, “starting people off” is one of the things I enjoy.


  11. Wonderful sentiments. I’ve been accused of using “big” words many a time, and my response is always the same: “It’s not a big word, it’s the right word.” TV has dumbed down the average person and journalism teaches us to use words at 8th grade level or below. I rebel!
    However, I can find no such word as “skry” in the OED. Care to elaborate? I love the feel of it.


    I’m always ready to elaborate! “Skry” is an older/poetic spelling of “scry”. Scrying in its narrowest meaning is to predict the future by gazing into a crystal ball, but in one of the thesaurus entries it adds, “interpret the significance of, as of palms, tea leaves, intestines, the sky; also of human behavior”. It pops up in Shakespeare as “skry”, but I’ve lost my link to that and don’t have time just now to go looking.

    I’m so happy to see you write, “It’s not a big word, it’s the right word.” The very name of this blog came from the first poem I wrote after decades away from writing. The first line of The Task at Hand is, “Even the right word takes effort”. But it’s a rewarding effort, indeed.

    Many thanks for the vist, and for the kind words.


  12. Used to have fun with my Dad translating expressions such as Beatnik slang: Obtain a large cargo of that insane frigid feline.
    (Get a load of that crazy cool cat.)
    T’was such fun!

    1. Rick,

      It’s impossible to enter another culture without knowing the language – I learned that anew when I began this blog. Until I had the vocabulary, I couldn’t ask a question, let alone understand the answer.

      Speaking of words and your future plans, you may have seen me mention this site, a delight for Spanish and English-speakers alike. I see that Steve is pushing the boundaries just a little today with his post-post post (you’ll see!) but don’t let that deter you. There’s a lot of good humor and interesting language there.


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