Our Abounding English Language

By Richard Lederer

English boasts by far the largest vocabulary of all languages, almost four times the number of words as its nearest competitor, German. As a result, English possesses a plethora of synonyms that allow greater nuances of meaning than are available in other tongues.

The multitudinous choice of words in English offers both a delightful and daunting challenge to native and non-native speakers. In Sophie's Choice, the heroine, Polish-born Sophie, expresses mock horror at the infinite variety of English words:

"Such a language! . . . Too many words. I mean just the word for velocite. I mean fast. Rapid. Quick. All the same thing! A scandal!"

"Swift?" I added.

"How about speedy?" Nathan asked.

"Hasty?" I went on.

"And fleet?" Nathan said. "Though that's a bit fancy."

"Stop it!" Sophie said, laughing. "Too much! Too many words, this English. In French it is so simple. You just say vite."

You should not be aghast, alarmed, amazed, appalled, astonished, bewildered, blown away, bowled over, confounded, dumbfounded, electrified, flabbergasted, flummoxed, overwhelmed, shocked, startled, stunned, stupefied, surprised, taken aback, or thunderstruck at this capacious cornucopia of synonyms in our marvelous English language.

More than four centuries ago, Sir Philip Sidney, the quintessential Renaissance man - at once poet, courtier, statesman, and soldier - celebrated our word wealth: "But for uttering sweetly and properly the conceite of the minde, which is the ende of thought, English hath it equally with any other tongue in the world." When Sir Philip penned those words, English possessed 50,000 words. Today the vessel of English contains well more than half a million and adds an average of 5,000 new words a year, providing an abundance of synonyms that offer wondrous possibilities for the precise and complete expression of diverse shades of meaning.

Thus, a sign in our San Diego Zoo reads: "Please do not annoy, torment, pester, plague, molest, worry, badger, harry, harass, heckle, persecute, irk, bully, rag, vex, disquiet, goad, beset, bother, tease, nettle, tantalize, or ruffle the animals."

Thus, a recent New Yorker cartoon puckishly celebrated our linguistic treasure trove. The cartoon's caption read: "Roget's Brontosaurus," and pictured was a big dinosaur in whose thought bubble appeared: "Large, great, huge, considerable, bulky, voluminous, ample, massive, capacious, spacious, mighty, towering, monstrous . . . ." If not for the finite capacity of thought bubbles, the artist could have added: "big, Brobdignagian, colossal, enormous, gargantuan, gigantic, hefty, hulking, humongous, husky, immense, jumbo, leviathan, looming, lumbering, mammoth, mountainous, ponderous, prodigious, sizable, substantial, tremendous, vast, weighty, whopping."

Such a cartoon would be far less likely to appear in a magazine printed in a language other than English. Books like Roget's Thesaurus are foreign to speakers of most other languages. Given the scope of their vocabularies, they have little need of them.

I hesitate to conclude this song of praise to the glories of English with dark news. But I regret to inform you that recently, a senior editor of Roget's Thesaurus assumed room temperature, bit the dust, bought the farm, breathed his last, came to the end of the road, cashed in his chips, cooled off, croaked, deep sixed, expired, gave up the ghost, headed for the hearse and the last roundup, kicked off, kicked the bucket, lay down one last time, lay with the lilies, left this mortal plain, met his maker, met Mr. Jordan, passed away, cashed in his chits, passed on, perished, permanently changed his address, pushed up daisies, returned to dust, slipped his cable, slipped this mortal coil, sprouted wings, took the last count, traveled to kingdom come, turned up his toes, went across the creek, went belly up, went to glory, went the way of all flesh, went to his final reward, went west - and, of course, he died.

Richard Lederer, vice president of SPELL, writes about, chronicles, comments on, authors books about, and informs readers concerning linguistics, language, and our native tongue. Write to him at 10034 Mesa Madera Dr., San Diego, CA 92131. His e-mail address is:richard.lederer@pobox.com.

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