What Word Would You Contribute to the English Language, If You Could (reflecting on Bill Bryson's Mother Tongue)

Monday, March 17, 2014

Among the many sweet things that happened to me during my trip south last week was Bill Bryson's Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way. I'd found the book at my favorite used bookstore near the Penn campus a week before. I'd tucked it into my bag last minute. It kept me all kinds of company in airport lounges and sleepless stretches. It became my very dear friend.

Published in 1990, superceded, but of course, by newfangled research, Mother Tongue still felt fresh to me, unencrusted. Where did our compunction to speak come from? Why is English so pervasive, and so challenging? What is good English and what is bad? And where do words actually come from?

The facts, the trends, the particulars are frankly delightful. Especially to one such as me, who—out of boredom, lack of proper education, corroded memory, or (let's be honest) poor eyesight—can't seem to stop herself from stretching language in every conceivable direction.

Here is a bit of trivia that I'm sure Bryson hunted down just for me: "Shakespeare used 17, 677 words in his writings, of which at least one tenth had never been used before. Imagine if every tenth word you wrote were original."

Love that? I love it.

Among Shakespeare's contributions, according to Bryson, were "barefaced, critical, leapfrog, monumental, castigate, majestic, obscene, frugal, radiance, dwindle, countless, submerged, excellent, fretful, gust, hint, hurry, lonely, summit, pedant, and 1685 others."

Where would we be without those words? What would I, personally, do without both lonely and hurry? And what can we do to keep our language alive?

It all makes me wonder, on this snowy St. Patty's Day: What word would you contribute to the English language, if you could?


Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

I wonder if those words were commonly spoken, but just hadn't been used in writing before Shakespeare did it?

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