Mind Your Language

Language is a weird and wonderful invention. And a rich language such as English has a staggering number of words available to you. Sadly, in everyday life we only use a few thousand on a regular basis. Some studies suggest the average person uses about 1000 different words in 89% of their daily writing. Adult vocabulary is estimated to be between 20,000 and 35,000 words, so clearly we only use a small percentage of the words we actually know. The currently accepted figure of words still in use in English and appearing in dictionaries is around 171,000, with a further 45,000 considered “obsolete”. I put “obsolete” in quotes because it merely means the word has fallen out of use. What it does not mean is that it is wrong to use such words. In fact, there are no rules or laws at all when it comes to words. Many writers make their own words up. Roald Dahl was famous for it but many others do it too, especially in science fiction and fantasy genres. I do it all the time. In fact I’ll make one up for you right now. Just give me a sec to engage the cogs… okay, friggle. So what is a friggle then? I’m going to use it to name that tiny little piece of hard, pointy skin that sometimes appears at the side of one or your fingernails and catches on your clothing. Remember me and chuckle next time you notice you have a friggle. Does that mean ‘friggle’ is now part of the English language? Not officially, because it isn’t yet in any dictionary, but there is absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t start using the word whenever you like. You don’t even need to be referring to that bit of skin, you could simply utter it as a replacement for an expletive.

The thing is, language is about communication. The whole point of it is to make someone understand what you are thinking. If you scour the dictionary and learn hundreds of wonderful, obscure words then that is all well and good; but if you actually try to throw them into an everyday conversation then you are likely to be greeted with blank looks (at best), because the other person won’t have a clue what you’re on about. Instead, we take the safe option and try to stick to the words we think everyone will understand. When we write we can take more risks because we know the reader can always pause and look up an unknown word in the dictionary, whereas in conversation that would be, well, a bit awkward. If I now asked you if you have any friggles you’d understand what I was asking because you are aware of the definition. This is how writers can get away with using their own words—they let you know what the word means, or at least provide enough information for you to work it out. Indeed, this is how many words came in to general use. Shakespeare provided plenty of new words and because he was so popular, those words began to circulate and be used by the public and hence ended up in the dictionary. Nowadays, with television, the internet and social media, words can quickly spread into common usage. I don’t expect the word ‘friggle’ to take the world by storm any time soon but imagine if, for example, Sir David Attenborough or Greta Thunberg made up a word to describe the state of the planet. It would be retweeted to millions within minutes and people around the globe would be uttering it within days.

Words are a wondrous invention. Think how many different songs can be made with just seven notes. The alphabet has 26 letters, so the number of possible words you could have is astronomical. 171,000 barely scratches the surface. But when I hear an odd word I can’t help thinking about who was the person that came up with it in the first place. Butter, demeanour, testicles, ostentatious, flatulence, turgid and whelk. Who would think up such words? And I confidently predict that I am the first human being in the history of the universe to use those in the same sentence. To celebrate, I’m going to do it again! “His normally ostentatious demeanour was affected by his desperate attempt to cure his turgid flatulence by rubbing butter on his testicles, which left him feeling as miserable as a whelk.” Such fun. I was tempted to throw floccinaucinihilipilification (the action or habit of estimating something as worthless) into the mix, but that would just be showing off. In most cases, the origins of words have been lost in the mists of time. Many, like ‘friggle’, have simply been made up on the spot for want of any other suitable word, but a lot have actually evolved from different words over the course of time. There are thousands of words in English that have actually been derived from Latin, French, German, Spanish—in fact just about any language you care to name. These ‘borrowed’ words get mispronounced and mis-spelled and yet somehow the rogue variants are the ones that stick in the minds of the masses. It is all delightfully organic and unpredictable. We tend to think of language as being stable and permanent but it is in fact fluid and ever-changing. People often fantasise about jumping in a time machine and going back a thousand years but if you could you might actually find yourself really struggling to be understood. Most of the words you would use would be considered gibberish back then. The same would hold for the future—if you could nip forward to 3020 you might find you can’t understand a word people are saying, assuming they even talk any more; it seems likely that by then people will have something like Bluetooth implants in their heads that would allow them to communicate silently. They would seem to you to be mute aliens, whilst you would appear to them to be a noisy raging lunatic. And on that delicious note, I shall leave you to fiddle with your friggles.