I’ve nothing against baseball, though I confess I’ve never watched a complete World Series. I enjoyed following our football and basketball teams in high school and college, but I’ve never attended a professional game in either sport. Years ago I could score a tennis match or round of golf, but those days are gone and I don’t regret them. In short, I’m a terrible sports fan.
On the other hand, I adore Super Bowl parties. The food’s great, the crowd’s congenial and the atmosphere’s relaxed. In 2009, a friend with Pittsburgh connections sent me a Terrible Towel and I went to the party as a temporary Steelers fan. As it turned out, team allegiance mattered not a whit when it came to enjoying the highlights of the day – including the broadcasters in the booth. Everyone watching agreed Al Michaels and John Madden were a winning combination. Always humorous, their commentary was sharp and insightful, though no one paid them much attention unless there was a disputed call or an especially noteworthy play.
All that changed in the game’s second half, when a player took off on a medium-sized run of perhaps fifteen or twenty yards. At the end, Michaels said, “Well, he ran that one with alacrity”. Silence enveloped the room as everyone turned to look at the screen and three people demanded in unison, “Alacrity?”
It was an appropriate word, properly used and perfectly in context. Still, alacrity seemed to be doing its own version of broken-field running as it forged its way through clusters of declarative sentences and monosyllabic comments, four unexpected syllables that stopped an entire party in its tracks.
I think of that experience now and then, especially when I decide to give the boundaries of language a little shove. When I chose to include the word skry in my poem The Grammarian in Winter, I wasn’t certain of the word’s meaning even when it came to mind and demanded to be used. It’s an unusual word, with archaic roots and alternate spellings. It’s almost never heard in casual conversation, unless you’re running with a crowd that casts entrails behind the garage or attends Wicca workshops on the weekend. But it’s a good word, a memorable word, and I was happy to give it a home where it could serve a beautiful purpose. Still, people were curious. “Skry?” they asked. “Skry?”
Not long after my experience with skry, another blogger used the word exemplars, referring to representative pieces of needlework. I hadn’t heard or read the word in ages, but a few days later I bumped into it a second time, finding it used to describe the film Slumdog Millionaire as “a fantastic exemplar of the rags-to-riches story line”.
It’s a common phenomenon. We meet a word for the first time, and soon we’re finding it everywhere. It’s as though the word itself – poor little skry, or the dignified and classic exemplar – has escaped the dictionary and is out running the country unsupervised. The more I think about it, the funnier it becomes. I imagine all those hapless words just waiting for someone to come along and bail them out of the Oxford Annotated or Webster’s, pleading their case as though they’ve been unjustly imprisoned and not allowed a phone call.
Good word-advocates, like the Louisiana ladies shown above on their way to the Bayou Dularge bookmobile, could be busy. The potential pool of words waiting to be liberated is overwhelming. Over 47,000 archaic or obsolete words are included in the Oxford English dictionary, give or take a few hundred still being brabbled over, and of course there are all those “other” words that are supposed to be a normal part of our language but which mostly just lie about, bored to tears in cheap novels or suffocating under the weight of unreadable dissertations.
Teachers like to distinguish between passive and active vocabulary – words we understand versus words we actually use. It’s said that educated adults will recognize between 50,000 and 250,000 words. How many of those words are used in speaking or writing is a different issue. Estimates of the size of a person’s active vocabulary vary wildly, from 10% to 90% of a person’s passive vocabulary. Assuming the lower end of the scale, 10% of 50,000 available words would be a working vocabulary of 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.
Fifty thousand words sounds like quite a list, but would skry be included? Probably not. Exemplar? Perhaps, but only if the Brits were around. Alacrity? People watching the Superbowl recognized it, but I’m sure it had been a while since anyone watching the game used the word. Sometimes I ask myself, “What words have I been neglecting?” and the answers can be interesting. 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 to 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 they want you to make it understandable. But there are times when single-syllable words can’t make it understandable. They haven’t sufficient depth, breadth or nuance to communicate what needs saying. To limit ourselves in language is to risk using the wrong word because we don’t have the right word, the true word, the one word necessary to turn the key in the world’s lock and reveal us to ourselves.
It’s become a commonplace to describe language as a tool. Like hammers, chainsaws and levers, word-tools certainly do help us accomplish the routine, utilitarian tasks of life. But if language helps us hammer home a point or cut through a tangled argument, it also can serve as a palette of nuance, a chisel for carving meaning from blocked understanding, a rosined bow to draw across a taut and tuned reality. We learn language, use language and love language not only because we want to “do”, but even more because we want to “be”, and it is language that calls us into being.
In a world marked by linguistic reductionism – the acronyms of Twitter and text, the determined dumbing-down of school requirements, the twisting of language by politicians and the willingness of publishers to market to the lowest common denominator – it’s worth remembering that our forebears were men and women who opened frontiers and built a country with books as well as with wagons and plows. Perhaps the time has come to reclaim that heritage: to read, write and speak freely, to revel in the richness of language and rebel against those who would diminish and distort its power in our lives.
Perhaps the time has come to free some words, in the service of our world.