We wordsmiths have lots of tools in our English kit, 470,000 of them in fact, according to Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, enough so we’ll never run out of material for crosswords, spelling bees, and Scrabble games. They’re fascinating in their scope and beauty and power.
I don’t envy any foreign adult trying to learn English, though, simply because there are so many words and attendant potential confusions. For example, there are at least 368 words that can serve as both a noun and a verb (and occasionally even an adjective as well), like cough, trip, kiss, whisper, glue, arrest, duck, service, taunt, hope, dart.
Appropriately, some words look and/or sound like their meanings. The word servile itself seems to cringe, even if you didn’t know what it means. Curmudgeon perfectly expresses its meaning (and yes, I count several of them among my friends). Zip looks fast just standing still, as does its more sophisticated cousin zipper. Foible is inherently unserious, capricious, and eccentric just by the look and sound of it.
Then there are those words I’ve always thought have meanings that don’t suit them at all. Napkin, for example, should have been reserved for babies born to a race of mythical diminutive creatures known as Naps, who perhaps inhabit the leafy glades of Napa Valley. Tantamount would be a perfect name for a volcano on a fictional planet called Tanta in the dozenth sequel of Star Wars. The word promulgate is much too heavy and visceral for its meaning. I see it better as meaning ‘digestion in the age of the dinosaurs’ as in: “After a delicious lunch of triceratops tail with a side of palm trees, the tyrannosaurus rex spent the afternoon just basking in the sun and promulgating.” A chihuahua should never have been an annoying yappy little ankle-biter of a dog, but a sexy Latin dance instead, which one performs like the cha-cha but with a lot of hot salsa added.
While I’m ranting, I’d also like to start a long-needed revolution in the naming of sports teams. I understand that we’re the most successful predators ever to live on this tired planet, but must we carry that tradition over into our games by co-opting all those scary names of the lesser predators? I say we change them all to more innocent, comfortable monikers: The Chicago Gerbils, The Memphis Rabbits, The Houston Turtles, The New England Chipmunks, The Miami Manatees, The Philadelphia Chickadees, The LA Loons.
Anyway, I’ve calculated that I only have to copy a quarter of the nearly half-million words in Webster’s Unabridged to create a number-one NY Times best-selling novel.
I just need to figure out which words and in what order.