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.