Thoughts about English

Last summer I graduated from the Open University with a first class honours degree in English. It was the nearest I could get to turning the clock back 36 years and doing things differently, studying arts not sciences. Since then, I’ve had a chance to step back and think about English itself.

English has acquired the largest vocabulary of all the world’s languages, perhaps as many as two billion words, and has generated one of the noblest bodies of literature in the annals of the human race. It must be heard for learners to get their heads round, though.

Why is it that when the sun or the moon or the stars are out, they are visible, but when the lights are out, they are invisible? Hammers don’t ham, ushers don’t ush (although they can hush), grocers don’t groce. Slim chance means a small chance, but fat chance means none. And then there are those unpaired words that look like they should have an opposite, but don’t:  have you ever met someone who was ruly, gruntled, sheveled or peccable? Peckable, maybe.

It makes it hard to know what word to pick, when you need to get verbal. But, choose wisely. While doing a bit of research for this column I was proud to find that there’s a verbal intelligence test named after the part of London where I live. It’s called the Mill Hill vocabulary scale – confirming what I’ve always known: we Mill Hillers are intelligent and we’re certainly verbal. The test was developed during World War 2 when the local boys’ school was evacuated and a major psychiatric hospital moved a lot of their staff and services in, to what they then called the Mill Hill Emergency Hospital. They treated soldiers and civilians suffering from the emotional traumas of war.

Oxford Dictionaries say that the word ‘time’ is the most often used noun in the English language. They got this information from the Oxford English Corpus, a research project representing all types of English, from literary novels to newspapers to the language of chatrooms, emails and blogs. Apparently, ‘the’ is the most commonly used word, followed by be, to, of, and, a, in, that, have, and I.

More than 45,000 new words and meanings were added to the latest revision of the Oxford English Dictionary. These include the heart sign, the first graphical symbol to signify a word. You can now also look up OMG, LOL, Muffin Top and WAG (the wife or girlfriend of a sports player). They’ve added Tinfoil Hat – (noun used with allusion to the belief that such a hat made of metal foil will protect the wearer from mind control or surveillance – well, it works for me) and Five-second Rule (a notional rule which allows you to pick up and eat food dropped on the floor within the specified period of time). I heart it.

Some families use totally made up words. Does yours? Sometimes they’re kids’ first attempts at a word that just stick. But others don’t seem to have any basis – my late father in law, when feeling listless and tired, used to say ‘I’ve got Lawrence’. There’s no record of what Lawrence felt about it.