We have nearly a quarter of a million words in the English language, and yet I can’t help but feel we have some we don’t need, yet are lacking some others.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) contains 171,476 words currently in use, another 47,156 that are obsolete, plus 9,500 more derivative words. New words are being added all the time, but lately, the quality of the words being added makes me weep for civilization’s decline.
For example, in September 2016, the OED added “squee,” “cheeseball” and “moobs” to their lexicon.
Squee? Seriously, squee? How could the OED, that honorable and erudite repository of the English language, add such a silly, fly-by-night, won’t-be used-a-year-from-now word to its 20-volume set? Centuries from now, long after our civilization has fallen, archaeologists will find an old copy of the OED, carefully examine it, and discover the entry for “squee.”
“This explains everything,” they’ll say sadly, shaking their heads the way we do when we hear stories about doctors who put leeches on sick people.
You want more from a body that pursues its work with such nerdy passion that it needs 20 volumes to hold the entirety of our language. You would hope the editors — I always imagine them wearing caps and gowns, like the dons at Oxford College — would scowl at the term and strike it completely.
It’s such an ugly word, my spell checker won’t even recognize it, and I’m not about to add it.
But alas, the OED is a descriptive dictionary, not a prescriptive one. That means it tells us how language is currently being used, not how it should be used. It describes the language around us; it doesn’t proscribe its proper use.
Which means telling your third-grade teacher, “Nuh-uh, it’s in the dictionary,” after she said “’ain’t’ isn’t a proper word” proved nothing.
The most infamous four-letter is in there, too, but that doesn’t mean you should go to your grandmother’s 90th birthday party and shout “Happy (blank) birthday, Grandma!”
I recently found a list of “untranslatable” foreign words on UrbanAdventures.com that sounded so lovely and agreeable, I think we should start using them on a regular basis.
I also laughed at the use of the word “untranslatable,” since what followed every word was, literally, its translation.
We’ve got words like this already, like “schadenfreude,” which is that feeling of malicious glee at someone else’s misfortune. Like when some jackwagon in a Mercedes flips you the bird and cuts you off in traffic only to get a ticket five minutes later.
One of the words UrbanAdventures.com recommended was “Resferber,” a Swedish term that refers to that excited mix of anxiety and anticipation right before you leave on a trip. I know that feeling all to well. I could never sleep the night before we were supposed to drive 1,000 miles south to Florida, starting at 4 a.m.
That usually went away about two hours later when the kids were fighting in the back seat because they couldn’t go back to sleep, and I couldn’t keep my eyes open.
Once we got to Florida, I experienced “Badkruka,” another Swedish term. It refers to someone who is reluctant to get into the water when swimming. This is understandable in Florida; there are things in the water that will eat you.
You’re better off just staying on the shore and enjoying the “mångata,” or the rippled reflection of moonlight on water. And that can be enjoyed anywhere, especially a swimming pool at night, safely away from sharks and gators and sea monsters.
And if we already use schadenfreude, then we need to add another German word to the mix: “verschlimmbessern.” It’s a verb that means to make something worse when you’re trying to improve it. It’s a painful word that makes me very uncomfortable.
I don’t mean the word itself. That would be stupid.
I mean the act of verschlimmbessern. Imagine bumping into a friend you haven’t seen for a while, and asking her when her baby is due, only to find out that she’s not pregnant.
Your embarrassed stammering digs you further and further into a deep hole that you can’t escape, and your only hope is that lightning will strike one of you at that very moment. You finally manage to break free, but not until you’ve upset her terribly and undone years of therapy and self-esteem work.
That’s verschlimmbessern. And it’s the plot of every episode of “Frasier” and “The Office,” which is why I hated those shows so much.
I realize that with nearly a quarter-million words in the dictionary, there are bound to be some stinkers and disappointments. But that doesn’t mean we have to be limited to what’s available in their dusty pages. There are plenty of great words in the rest of the world, too. And if we could just start using some of them in everyday conversation, I would just squee with delight!