Another Pile of Words

Monday, June 3, 2019 - 2:45pm
John Kushma

...I’m just being fashionably condescending.  Read this, you’ll like it. 


There are over a million total words in the English language.  Of these there are about 170,000 in current use, and of those about 20,000 are used commonly by each individual person. 


By contrast the Greek language has over 5 million words.  It’s probably the reason we sometimes say, “It’s all Greek to me.” 


There are an estimated some 7,000+ languages worldwide.  To try and estimate how many words these include would be both pointless and exhausting, and impossible to calculate.  There are factors like age and education, “the average person”, dialect, words with double meanings or the same meaning, etc. 


Language, Linguistics, is a fascinating subject.  It is estimated that the average English speaking adult knows about 20,000 words.  The average American adult will use anywhere between 200 and 1,000 of these words in common daily speech. 


Here’s another statistic estimate that may cause some heartburn ...the average working male uses about 3,000 words in a day whereas the average woman uses over 10,000.  What that could indicate is women are smarter than men and know more words ...


We are forced to use some words, like ‘Tuesday‘ or ‘Help!‘ ...and there are some words we may never use, like ‘Antidisestablishmentarianism‘ or ‘Pahoehoe’.  There are the  highfalutin, tenpenny words that nobody uses, like parsimonious, nidificate, sesquipedalian, and usufruct, then there are the common garden-variety words that come and go and we don’t even notice when we use them, like sox, jocks, box, or locks. 


But there are certain words that just stand out more than others either because of their sound or their meaning, or both.  Some are pleasing to hear, like ‘Child’, some grate on your ear like sandpaper, like ‘Bitch’ ...both having a double meaning that affect emotion through context. 


Some other ‘pleasing to the ear’ words would be, Mellifluous, Serendipity, Epiphany, Oblivion ...all in contrast to the more ‘grating’ words like, Cacophony, Chafe, Grotesque, Rancid. 


With all this in mind, and the fact that I am a terrible Scrabble player, I have randomly selected, for the sake of light-hearted argument, five common words known to everyone that are used on occasion but not in everyday language.  These words stand out for their specific sound and look in print, and not as much for their meaning.  To me, they are engaging, beguiling ... 


Howitzer.  A Howitzer is a type of military artillery cannon with a short barrel and uses a small propellant charge to fire a projectile into a high trajectory with a steep angle of decent.  The English word ‘Howitzer‘ comes from the Czech word ‘Houfnice‘ from ‘Houf‘ or “crowd” ...which is borrowed from the German word ‘Hufe‘ of ‘Haufen‘, meaning “heap”.  So, Howiter = Crowd Heap.  Makes sense to me ...a Howitzer can leave a crowd in a heap! 


Caricature.  A Caricature is a picture, description, or imitation of a person in which certain striking characteristics are exaggerated in order to crete a comic or grotesque effect.  Note both the difference and similarity to the word ‘Characterize‘, a verb, which describes a distinctive nature of a person, place or thing, and not necessarily exaggerating a feature for dramatic or comic affect.  (‘affect’ vs. ‘effect’ look it up).  Caricature and Characterize are commonly mistaken for one another.  I’ve done it many times and apologize for the mistake. 


Yugoslavia.  Yugoslavia is a former federal republic in southeastern Europe, in the Balkans.  This word is not used every day by the average person, but I chose it because it sounds funny to me.  Not because it is funny, but for some reason I always hear it as being said in the classic exaggerated harmonics by a wise guy from Brooklyn ...’You Go Slaaaav E Ya’ ...I’m Czechoslovakian so it’s okay for me to poke fun at Yugoslavia. 


Schmuck.  A Schmuck is a foolish or contemptible person.  A blockhead, nincompoop, a buffoon.  For example, some would say that our American president, Donald Trump, ‘President Goldfinger’, is a ‘Schmuck’.  The word is derived from the Yiddish word ‘shmok‘ which has a slightly more vulgar meaning.  However, in my dictionary Trump’s picture is placed above the word ‘schmuck’. 


Mezzanine.  A mezzanine is a story between two others, typically between the ground and first floor in a public building.  Any word with double Z’s always catches my eye. 


These random five words may mean nothing to you or have no special impact on you as they have me, but they are among the millions of words we use daily in some way shape of form stories, advertising, annual reports, radio, TV, entertainment, books, magazines, your thesis, your electricity bill, billboards, op-eds and editorials, the operating manual for your new refrigerator or the instructions for your kid’s bike.  Tax forms.  Ingredients.  


The Constitution, Declaration of Independence. 


We are literally drowning in words.  Sometimes choking on our own words.  Individually, they are just words.  Put them together and you have a sentence.  Put sentences together and you have information.  If you have information, you have knowledge, and knowledge is your most valuable asset.  Knowledge is your power.  


To me, however, the most profoundly commanding word in the English language, or any language, is ‘Stop’.  So I will.  


John Kushma is a communication consultant and lives in Logan, Utah.