In A Word Tangle

Not that long ago my father called me up when he was having trouble with a clue on a crossword puzzle. Could I remember the term for phrases that contained every letter of that alphabet in them? As it turned out, I’d never even heard of this phenomenon, but a rapid check of the trusty internet produced the word ‘pangram’, of which the best known example is ‘The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.’ I thought this was rather a neat concept and looked up a few more, some of which sounded surprisingly sane, like ‘The public was amazed to view the quickness and dexterity of the juggler’, some of which were rather droll, like ‘Two hardy boxing kangaroos jet from Sydney to Zanzibar on quicksilver pinions’, some of which were delightfully surreal: ‘Jaded zombies acted quaintly but kept driving their oxen forward.’ However, the problem comes when I try to explain the concept to anyone else, because I keep getting the term mixed up with the word ‘pogrom’ which means something completely different. It may be possible to persecute the Jewish race with bizarre linguistic play but it’s probably one of the few methods of racial torture that history does not record.

I have similar difficulties with epigram, epigraph and epitaph. Epigrams deserve their own category of confusion because I think they’re tricky to spot at the best of times. An epigram is a witty remark, succinctly expressed and often in the form of a brief poem. Although it doesn’t have to be a poem, as Oscar Wilde’s epigram ‘I can resist everything but temptation’ demonstrates. Deciding when something is or is not worthy of the title of epigram is the kind of problem to keep pedantic minds warm throughout the winter months. There’s also no reason why an epigram couldn’t appear as an epigraph (a quotation at the beginning of a book or chapter), and at a pinch it could also double up as an epitaph (an inscription on a tombstone or monument) . But when I want to refer to any of the three I have to stop and think very carefully indeed or else risk losing myself in a hopeless muddle.

Then there are words that seem to just slip out of reach of any meaning I try and put on them. I have all kinds of problems with the word ‘contingent.’ Now contingency plans are easy; they’re what I spend far too much of my life making in the unshakeable belief that things never ever turns out the way you expect them to. But when the Existentialists talk on and on relentlessly about human beings as ‘contingent’ it seems to be a leap too far of understanding for my poor beleagured brain. To get my mind around what it all means, I have to remember how life for most non-control freaks is about not having any contingency plans at all, and thus the individual becomes contingent, a matter of chance and accident, an unpredictable and arbitrary being. The rather jargon-y term ‘hegemony’ is another one that gives me bother, and it’s a nuisance because it crops up quite a lot in literary criticism. It mostly refers to the situation when one social class acquires the upper hand over the others within a society, but it doesn’t have to apply to class. It can be any group or organisation of people. But I have to think of an egg and spoon race in which someone wins by the kind of margin that can only be explained by foul play to really get a handle on the living entrails of the word.

I could go on at length about this but all it really shows is that English is a fiendishly complex language, partly due to the immense size of its vocabularly, partly due to all the influences (primarily German, Celtic languages, French and Latin) that fed into it. I was idly looking around the internet to try to find out the average size of an English speaker’s vocabulary, but it turns out the very complexity of English makes it difficult to gauge. Estimates of a college graduate’s vocabulary range from 20-25,000 to the supposedly more accurate 60,000 active words and 75,000 passive words. One anecdote I rather appreciated concerned a test undertaken at a party of linguisticians, where the average vocabulary ran at about 200,000 to a quarter of a million words. The author of the article went on to confess that at that self same party he had been one of the men mixing the cocktail, and by a simple miscalculation he had stocked it with enough alcohol to calm a herd of raging wildebeast. Apparently the guest of honour fell asleep with his head on the table alongside his bowl of untouched soup, and this mostly passed by unnoticed. The author suggested that the results of this test, though relatively widely disseminated amongst the linguistic community were perhaps not entirely reliable unless they had been taken very, very early on in the evening…. So all I can say is that English remains an enigmatic and internally tortuous language that causes its speakers no end of difficulty, but equally no end of entertainment.


19 thoughts on “In A Word Tangle

  1. Interesting subject. And all you were able to turn up were estimates? I propose an experiment.

    Some linguist should create a MS Word macro that examines individual blogs by

    1)starting at the first word in the latest post, going to the next word and deleting it if it is the same but bypassing it if it differs.
    2) examines the next word, discarding matches but bypassing words that are the same as a word already passed, until the first post on the blog has been reached.
    3) examines the word list that has been created, throwing out mispellings (thoughtfully underlined in red by MS Word.)
    4) performs a wordcount on the remains.
    This will tell you the person’s active blogging vocabulary.

    It would be a little time consuming, getting a nice sample size, but I would think that the hard data would be well worth it. One’s blogging vocabulary probably differs substantially from everyday verbal behavior. But I’ve noticed that I avoid words I have difficulty spelling. So, for me, the estimate would be pretty close, I think.

  2. I think I finally have the difference between metonymy and synecdoche down, but I do have to think about it first. And other words, like your “hegemony,” I find tricky because their meanings slip around. When someone says “gnostic” it could mean quite a few different things, for example. I have to say, I’m happy with the complexity of English, even if it does cause trouble now and then!

  3. Caveblogem – what a brilliant thought! I couldn’t possibly do the programming, but I’d happily analyse the results! And what interesting reading they would make. Dorothy – you’ve picked out some excellent ones there – I’d intended to talk about ‘gnostic’ but I forgot about it in the heat of composition. It is indeed a slippery little word! Ella – didn’t that party sound a blast? However, I have to say in all honesty that the linguisticians’ parties around here do not go with quite such a swing. In fact I can’t remember the last time they all had a party… someone should remind them of the tradition they exist within!

  4. You would very likely enjoy a fun little book by Mark Dunn called Ella Minnow Pea. It is full of wordplay and the plot is based on the search for a pangram.

    The English language is a slippery fish. There are words I get goofed up all the time but I keep them blocked out of my mind until I come across them at which time I begin chewing my pencil and wondering why I can never remember what the word means. It took me forever to remember what ontology was and sometimes I get it confused with oncology. Oy.

  5. I still have visions of my Thesaurus roaming the primeval word forests, gulping down small dictionaries and occasionally feasting on the carcase of a deceased OED. Other than when I am looking for the entymology of a word, I now look to my Roget’s for an idea of its meaning and use. As a sidelight, I found the word “Sunand” (Sunnud or Sanad) in a will dated 1729 when the COD dates its first use to 1759. Sadly I have yet to find a way to work the word into an essay or story. Hmmm, I may post a portion of the will on my blog. It will stir the feminists into an apoplectic rage.

  6. I quite like the idea of contingent identity. It means I’m allowed to change my mind and want conflicting things.

    I find reading philosophy and theory can get very tiring as they always seem to be inventing new words for things which sound quite like, or even are, existing words but which are subtly different.

    Hegemony is a funny one. I always thought it was meant to be bad (as in fight the hegemonic forces of oppression!) but in some kinds of radical democratic political theory it’s how social change happens and thus neutral (I think!)

  7. My first reaction to this post is surprise: I’ve never heard you say someone ‘called you up’; it sounds to me as though your writing is bearing traces of Americanisms, which suggests that the lit-blogging community is having an influence on you…

    My second is that I too have problems with epigrams, graphs and taphs. I got it wrong only yesterday in a lecture, for instance…

  8. For me it’s the difference between meronymy and hyponymy. I’m not even going to try and unpick why – I’d be bound to get it wrong and show up my ignorance.

  9. Palimpsest, palindrome, palinode, heuristics, paradigm, elegy, hypallage, anchorite: I wonder how the Greek could understand one another when they have produced 90% of the words and roots that need a dictionary to make any sense.

  10. Since I have started blogging I have taken to looking in the dictionary more. There are times I think I know what I am saying or want to say, but the word I thought was right, really wasn’t. I think wordplay is so interesting–but I bet I don’t know half of what I should–and I wish I was better at cross word puzzles!

  11. Stefanie – LOL, that’s a good one! And thank you for the recommendation – I’ll be looking out for it. Archie – bring on the apoplectic rage! I’ll give it a go. I love the image of the thesaurus beastie – woooh too scary. Ms Make Tea, I know what you mean about philosophy and criticism using words that seem unlikely or ungainly derivatives of others. I often stop to scratch my head and wonder if it’s me or if that word doesn’t really exist. Or could be replaced with a comprehensible alternative. Kathryn – it actually comes from too much Nancy Drew and Peanuts at a formative age…. and I’m glad to know I’m not alone in the confusing epi-territory! Ann – I have no idea what the difference is myself, if that’s any consolation! Emily – that is such a classic. I always have to stop and think ‘the mites grow up’. Mandarine – Ha! too true! The Greeks must have been a smart race to get their tongues and their minds around all those concepts. Danielle – You know I spend years of my life checking things in dictionaries, and I am absolutely hopeless at crosswords!

  12. Hegemony has gnawed at me for the past year or so. I had read the word plenty, but had never heard it pronounced until several months ago. I used to pronounce it with a hard G, like hegeemony. When I finally learned to pronounce it, I would just repeat it in my mind sometimes, happy to know the proper pronunciation. It’s a fun word to say, although it has a somewhat sinister reputation. As for the definition, whenever I came across it, I couldn’t help thinking it meant an area of land defined by borders made of hedgerows, although I knew this had to be wrong. I kind of like that definition better.

  13. For many years, the meanings of the terms “hermeneutics” and “pedagogy” regularly eluded me. I had to consult the dictionary again every time I encountered them; I just couldn’t keep the definitions in my head. It’s somewhat ironic that I wound up a law professor, hermeneutics being central to the law part and pedagogy at the heart of the professor part.

  14. Oh, oh, I’m with Ian and Kate on the hegemony, hermeneutics and pedagogy – all three took me nearly a year to understand, pronounce, and use appropriately. Personally, I think hegemony is one of those right of passage words – the first time it falls off your lips in a graduate school course and nobody stares at you like you’re crazy, is a great great moment.

  15. Ian – I love your definition and think we should get the word officially changed. After all, I’ve never known how to refer to those hedgerow-bordered areas of land, and there are a lot of them in England! Kate – ah you bring another of those difficult words back to me. Hermeneutics is a concept I still find really tricky to get my mind around! Courtney – you’re quite right. It’s one of the unexpected joys of difficult words that using them correctly packs quite a punch for the ego!

  16. Pingback: How many words do you actually use? « Pretty Good on Paper

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