Shakespeare Had It Right – Doug Irvin

Shakespeare Had It Right – Doug Irvin

There are in excess of 170,000 words in the English language. It’s impossible to tell exactly how many, because some words are used with different meanings, so are loan words from other languages (hence considered English) and some are derived from other words as slang and similar terms.

Think of it: over ONE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY THOUSAND WORDS plus extras. I doubt even an unabridged dictionary has that many – in fact, I question if any list any where has a complete collection.
And, as writers, we are supposed to be masters of the lexicon, wizards of the word, adepts of the arcane definitions. Okay, I’ll stop.
Seriously, though. The immensity is awesome. I’ve loved the sheer beauty of this language from a very early age (I note with pride winning the Third Grade Spelling Bee!) and am enamored of the fluidity of precision and meaning it is capable of providing.
But I am no where near even ten thousand words strong.
Shakespeare, according to a comedian’s claim, knew 54,000. (
Imagine having a Fifty-Four Thousand working vocabulary – and please note I doubt he had access to either a dictionary or thesaurus.

I am flabbergasted. I am in awe. I am left wordless. Well, maybe not the last.
But fifty-four thousand words! The level of precision in language is unbelievable.

Also, please note, the capabilities of double meanings is increased nearly exponentially. Read any of his plays, and you’ll see characters punning in every scene. The man was a master of paronomasia. He could develop multiple scenes based on manifold meanings.

The greatest benefit he gained from his vocabulary was the ability to use an imprecise word for the right one for the context, and thus cause the reader to contemplate both right and wrong conclusions. I, at my utter best, have been able to render a three level pun: one with an immediate double entendre, a secondary meaning that causes a brief outburst of laughter or a giggle an hour or two later, and a third that wakes you up in the middle of the night thinking, “Aw, MAN!”.
Shakespeare’s plays are still causing guffaws centuries after his death. THAT is mastery. And he only had a fraction of the language at his disposal.
I’m of the opinion that all the cryptic utterings of various oracles throughout history is a result of an excellent vocabulary and an inability to choose the proper word. Or perhaps a desire for an inward snicker as the seeker leaves with a pole-axed look on their face.
A writer of science fiction a few decades ago produced a story in which a robot started writing novels. He/It/She was a resounding success. Perhaps we, as proponents of the written word, should seek a ban on Artificial Intelligence; if for no other reason than job security!


256 thoughts on “Shakespeare Had It Right – Doug Irvin

  1. “Think of it: over ONE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY THOUSAND WORDS plus extras. I doubt even an unabridged dictionary has that many

    I recall reading, on the occasion of the release of the most recent Oxford Unabridged Dictionary, that the new edition had 450,000 entries. That includes ‘common phrases’ (whatever that means) as well as words, but I expect that 170,000 (or more) words were included.

    Of course, I may have hallucinated the whole thing. I just don’t think so.

    1. Because I was curious I googled. The following article titled How many words are there in the English Language? was found on the Oxford English Dictionary site:

      There is no single sensible answer to this question. It’s impossible to count the number of words in a language, because it’s so hard to decide what actually counts as a word. Is dog one word, or two (a noun meaning ‘a kind of animal’, and a verb meaning ‘to follow persistently’)? If we count it as two, then do we count inflections separately too (e.g. dogs = plural noun, dogs = present tense of the verb). Is dog-tired a word, or just two other words joined together? Is hot dog really two words, since it might also be written as hot-dog or even hotdog?

      It’s also difficult to decide what counts as ‘English’. What about medical and scientific terms? Latin words used in law, French words used in cooking, German words used in academic writing, Japanese words used in martial arts? Do you count Scots dialect? Teenage slang? Abbreviations?

      The Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words. To this may be added around 9,500 derivative words included as subentries. Over half of these words are nouns, about a quarter adjectives, and about a seventh verbs; the rest is made up of exclamations, conjunctions, prepositions, suffixes, etc. And these figures don’t take account of entries with senses for different word classes (such as noun and adjective).

      This suggests that there are, at the very least, a quarter of a million distinct English words, excluding inflections, and words from technical and regional vocabulary not covered by the OED, or words not yet added to the published dictionary, of which perhaps 20 per cent are no longer in current use. If distinct senses were counted, the total would probably approach three quarters of a million.

      So, I guess, the answer to the question, ‘How many words are there in the English language?’ is we don’t really know — but there are a lot however you reckon it.

      1. Exact same article I just looked at.

        I probably have quite a few more than 10K words in my vocabulary – but that doesn’t mean superiority, at all. Whenever I get hold of an OED, I tend to look for those 47,156 obsolete words. Fun, but not very useful…

        1. I judge my verbal skills by the fact that I was able to make it through six Thomas Covenant novels and reached for a dictionary only once. 🙂

          1. Oh, hell, I didn’t even makemit through half of one before I reached for a pain med and a lighter….

            Never did figure the attraction of those books. The POV character was a cad and a swine.

              1. I’ve been accused of being unable to write anything without making an educated, middle class friend of mine go to the dictionary at least three times.
                I’m flabbergasted. I mean, I TRY to use the most common word that will do. I think it’s HER problem.

                1. One of my players tells the story of having a TA for a college course with assigned papers—not a native English speaker—give her a bad grade and accuse her of deliberately looking up words no one ever used to embarrass the TA by making her look ignorant. This was simply my friend’s normal vocabulary. Of course, now that she’s more than twice as old I expect her vocabulary has grown a bit. . . .

                  1. I usually speak very plainly, and don’t utilize the more esoteric parts of my vocabulary in general conversation, but occasionally my brain will take a turn and start throwing out words and phrases with complexities of meaning that have the people i’m speaking to tilting their heads and saying, “Whaaa???”

                  2. In 1st grade, Junior Chronda had a weekly meeting with a school therapist to deal with an alleged speech impediment. One day the therapist handed him a clipping from the newspaper announcing successful isolation of a specific type of quark. She had thought he had made the word up.

                  3. I have a tangental story from an earlier era. When my father was an undergraduate there was, in one of his classes, a Real Snob who pestered the staff for permission to use laguages other than Englsh sh in his termpaper. Sure enough he turned in a mosaic of French, Spanish , and German, with allusions in Latin and Greek.

                    So the staff trotted the paper areound to assorted linguists on campus, corrected each section in the appropriate language, gave him his (poor) grade, and wrote a lengthy commentary.

                    Which they had translated into Sandscrit.

                  4. Part of the fun of reading older works is the different words. The words of the dialog in the modern version of True Grit aren’t obscure, but, being dated, give a moments pause.

                  5. I used to teach computer programming and “literacy” in the seventies and eighties at a community college. Sometimes my “reviews” by the students accused me of not explaining things clearly enough, which worried me, because I was very careful to explain all the jargon in great detail.
                    Then I realized they were complaining about my normal, non-jargon, vocabulary.

                2. I was accused of that in high school. In my regular speech, I’d use words that I thought should be common knowledge words. It was my regular vocabulary because I picked up things from what I read. Most kids around me only picked up from what they heard and most didn’t listen to the teachers, they listened to their radios.

                  1. A few years ago someone told me that my speech was rather archaic. I smiled and thanked them. I still get people giving me odd looks when I use certain phrases that have been out of use for a generation or so.

                    1. I was searching for the exact right word in some project, and used one I remembered (faintly) as having the correct connotation. I wanted to make sure I got it right, so checked out my abridged dictionary: not there. Went to the unabridged (some recent edition): not there. Encarta? Nope. Finally pulled out my 1913 (or thereabouts) Websters.
                      Exactly what I remembered.
                      My treasure is a full set of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica (available online now) – $5 at a library sale just a decade ago.

                  2. I think I must have been fifty or so before I finally got it through my head that other folks did not employ the same vocabulary as do I. I find that attributing it to a young adulthood misspent doing crossword puzzles ameliorates hostility engendered by the assumption I use vocabulary to intimidate.

                    As I have never been intimidated by vocabulary it was only with great difficulty I came to accept this was a reasonable accusation.

                  3. In my experience, the accusers act like you’re doing it wittingly, that you know their vocabulary and exceed it with malice aforethought.

                3. When The Daughter was in elementary school the President of the PTA would frequently say to me, ‘I know you understand what you said. Could you use simple words for me?’ She was not unintelligent and had obtained a much higher level of formal education — but still.

                  One of the most frustrating things when I was in chemo was loosing my simple words for a time. That and the slip of words that produced some very Norm Crosby moments.

                4. Any competent seamstress ought be able to unflabber those gasts for you, at a reasonable fee.

                  I do not doubt that the problem is not your word usage but rather the contemporary standards defining “educated” that are the problem.

                  Did you see the recent Camille Paglia comment about the end product of the Gastroeducational tract as it reaches her classroom?

                  Camille Paglia/Christina Hoff Sommers: “We are Heading Towards Late Rome”

                  What has happened is these young people now getting to college have no sense of history of any kind. No sense of history. No world geography. No sense of the violence and the barbarities of history. So, they think that the whole world has always been like this, a kind of nice, comfortable world where you can go to the store and get orange juice and milk, and you can turn on the water and the hot water comes out. They have no sense whatever of destruction, of the great civilizations that rose and fell, and so on, and how arrogant people get when they’re in a comfortable civilization, etc. So they now are being taught to look around them to see defects in America – which is the freest country in the history of the world – and to feel that somehow America is the source of all evil in the universe, and it’s because they’ve never been exposed to the actual evil of the history of humanity. They know nothing!

                  1. My apologies – all text subsequent to the youtube embedment* is quoted from Ms Paglia.

                    It ought have been presented with quotation marks, thusly:
                    “‘Presentism’ is a major affliction—an over-absorption in the present or near past, which produces a distortion of perspective and a sky-is-falling Chicken Little hysteria.”

                    *WP says this is not a word and recommends “demented” as the proper spelling.

                    1. Man lives by bread alone, and the source of bread is the corner bakery. Peace is to be preferred above honor, and can be had by jeering at colonels and reading newspapers.

                      C. S. Lewis
                      from memory

                  2. where you can go to the store and get orange juice and milk
                    Any time of day or of the year, no less. They don’t know what “seasonal vegetables” even are.

                    And, yes, to everything else, too.

            1. I take down my dictionary nearly every single week; in fact, often both the Merriam-Webster and the Concise Oxford, and occasionally the Unabridged Oxford (with its magnifying glass). The scholarly papers I copy edit regularly use words I haven’t enountered, or unfamiliar senses of familiar words, and there’s also checking which is the American, British, or Canadian spelling. And then there’s verifying etymologies. . . .

            2. I likely refer to my dictionary several times a week to ensure that a particular word carries the exact nuance I intend. Admittedly, I am sometimes wont to scribble in additions to the text …

              Is this the appropriate point at which to cite Louie Carroll’s Eggman?

              1. Conveniently, just as I finish posting that my eyes come across this Theodore Dalrymple observation at JWR:

                The Devil’s in the Diction: The vague terms that populate our political discourse encourage lazy and often deeply biased thinking
                Some words in the press are used not only for purposes of shorthand but also as Pavlovian bells to get the ideological saliva running.

                They have only to be printed or uttered for thought to cease, and since thought is often painful and poses the danger of arriving at unwanted conclusions, such words offer protection against such pain and discomfort.

                Among them, for certain people, especially in Europe, are poverty, liberalism and austerity (the list is far from exhaustive).

                The connotation of poverty is that of Dr. Johnson’s definition: the want of necessities. And no one will be found to defend hunger, lack of shelter from the elements, or nakedness. But the denotation of poverty nowadays is not the same as its connotation. Almost always, the denotation of poverty nowadays is the possession of an income below 60 percent of the median income, so that what is meant is not so much poverty as inequality.

                A society in which everyone had a guaranteed six-figure income could thus have a great deal of “poverty,” and an incomparably poorer country could have much less poverty, in the technical sense of the word.

                [END EXCERPT]

                Sadly, these days words are often like lightbulbs in dovecotes: intended more to generate heat than light.

                1. Vague terms also enable the “motte and bailey” form of argumentation lying. E.g., the varying definitions of “feminism” can go all the way from “the idea that women should not be second-class citizens”, which almost every American agrees with, to “the idea that women were oppressed in the past, so fairness demands that they oppress men now”, which nobody admits to believing (but some people’s actions tell you that they believe it).

              2. Occasionally I do that, because it occurs to me that a word I’ve been using for years is not quite what I thought, but frankly it’s easier to look it up online and see its use.

            3. Congratulations – you made me look up a definition for esurient.
              I might have used voracious, rapacious or even greedy or predacious.

  2. There was an SF story in which a robot learned to be a wonderful concert pianist…but then refused to ever play again, because it conflicted with his directive to avoid causing harm to humans.

  3. For the moment you can rest easy.

    The level of computer processing that would be required to write at the level of a William Shakespeare is in the a long long way off, possibly never, category. The mastery of language and story telling is not just a science — a knowledge of word meanings, grammar and syntax — but an art.

    1. I’ve mentioned before that I’m firmly on the “never” side of that question. Artificial intelligence will eventually be able to produce a computer that can write a technical document — all facts, no feelings. Or an advanced mathematical proof, perhaps even so advanced that the best mathematicians in the world have trouble understanding it. That’s not outside the bounds of what artificial intelligence is capable of (in theory, though not yet in practice).

      What is completely outside the bounds of artificial intelligence is emotion, and what a religiously-inclined person would call the spirit or the soul. At least, not with computers in their current form. Computers are, fundamentally, extremely advanced calculators: anything you want to program into a computer, you have to be able to describe mathematically. And there is no mathematical formula to which you can reduce the human heart. Therefore, no computer program will ever be able to write Much Ado About Nothing, or Othelllo, or the Saint Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V.

      1. I agree with you.

        I have a soft spot for the first sentient computer I ever met, who was given the name Mycroft. Sure, he was fictitious, and there next to no chance there will ever be a Mycroft, but he is the kind of a character it makes you wish it were possible. So occasionally I dream.

        (On the other hand it could have been a nightmare, he could have turned out to be a Moriarity.)

        1. Well, while David Weber gave us Dahak, he also gave us Dahak’s “evil twin” (even if we only know of the evil twin not met him). 😉

    1. THe thought did cross my mind, but I do have lawyers I interact with frequently on various social media, and I’d hate to be responsible for their demise.

        1. Last I’d heard (and that was some time ago) lawyers weren’t the worst even before the Community Activist in Chief nonsense. Seems the used car salesmen were at the top (bottom?) of the list.

          1. I have long held that politicians are the most maligned of trades, combining as the class does an admixture of lawyers and real estate developers.

              1. So has Greebo figured out he’s got two suckers for obtaining treats? Because Nemo definitely has. 😎

                1. Weirdly neither of the cats likes going into Dan’s office. And Greebo doesn’t like treats. He’s OCD cat. he likes mommy on her chair making typety noises that indicate writing.

      1. But you ASK them – “Are you a Lawyer?” and you only kill them if they answer anything but “No”. If your friend can’t just answer “No”, well stupidity is a capital offence. At least that’s what LL says.

    2. You do know that John Adams was a lawyer. So were a number of the gentlemen who attended the Constitutional Convention.

      1. For that matter, the “First, we’ll kill all the lawyers” line was said by one of Shakespeare’s “Bad Guys”. 😉

  4. I just did quick search on ‘Shakespeare knew 54,000 words’ and there are no citations or scholarly works linked to this number. I even read a couple of sites that claimed Shakespeare really knew 65,000 words not 54,000.

    I believe the more interesting fact about Shakespeare is that he created many new words:

    “The English language owes a great debt to Shakespeare. He invented over 1700 of our common words by changing nouns into verbs, changing verbs into adjectives, connecting words never before used together, adding prefixes and suffixes, and devising words wholly original. Below is a list of a few of the words Shakespeare coined …. ”

    1. It’s easy to have a huge vocabulary when you can make up words as needed. Perhaps his greatest skill is whatever allowed him to do that and have the audience go along with it.

      1. Spoken word, and written word, are different.

        Reading a bit, it sounds like Shakespeare was first English playwright to bring in more spoken dialogue, which is more informal. And Shakespeare was first to write plays that both upper and lower classes enjoyed, before that, plays were written solely for upper classes.

        I wonder if Shakespeare got some of his words from working classes that he lived amongst and mingled with, he was middle class but didn’t suffer from airs and graces, so he wrote what he heard.

    2. I must confess, I used the figure of 54,000 words based on the remark of the comedian in the youtube clip.
      Sounded good, though. And was a nice lead to his performance.

      1. “And was a nice lead to his performance.”

        My response reads much more strident than it should.

        I, too, enjoyed John Branyan video, never heard of him before.

    3. Except that all that we can really say is that the form first appeared in his works. It was a much more spoken language in his day.

        1. It would depend on whether the acoustics of the cave were properly suited to the harp’s sound palette. I suspect it can be quite a challenge to tune a cave.

          1. That’s a mental image for the day. “Eric, we have to move that stalactite 2.5 meters to the south. And shorten that stalagmite by 3 centimeters.”

        2. Yeah, but caves are damp, and that does nothing good to musical instruments made of wood. At minimum, lots of frantic retuning results, while at maximum, things come unglued.

          I know there are carbon fiber string instruments – dunno if there are any carbon fiber harps.

          1. When $NIECE got married, the remainder of the string quintet she played in did occasional music for the wedding. Outdoors, in summer, in Chicagoland, in 90%+ humidity. (There had been a huge thunderstorm the day before, and another after the ceremony.)

            I congratulated them for the valiant effort despite the tuning issues. It was an extreme example of “goes out of tune faster than a harpsichord in a wet breeze.”. (Also, an striking example of “it seemed like a good idea at the time.”)

            1. The pros have a concept of “Picnic Violin” (or viola, or whatever) – the instrument that is not as nice as their concert instrument, which they use when hired to go play out in ambient weather.

              Picnic Violin was the role the spousal violinist was trying out a carbon fiber violin for about 10 years ago, and she had me along to listen from across the room. She didn’t like how it sounded under her ear, but that thing could go loud. I told her it was like power steering as far as the sound quantity was concerned, and to me it sounded fine, but in the end she decided not to buy it.

              1. Do you own a good audio recorder? If my wife was trying out a musical instrument and her ear was more experienced than mine, I’d probably get out my audio recorder (I have a Zoom H4N that I picked up on a 60% off sale years ago, and I love it — amazingly useful for language learning, since it lets me make audio flashcards for studying vocabulary). Stand across the room, record the audio, and then let her listen to it with headphones.

                Of course, this advice is ten years too late to help in the situation you mentioned. 🙂 But it might help next time.

                  1. I gather that is the reason glass harmonium players go mad …

                    Their listeners go mad for a different reason.

              1. Yeah, most of the caves I’ve encountered in the area were damp, and many were outright wet in parts. The exception that comes to mind is X Cave at Carter Caves State Park, about two and a half hours east-southeast from Cincinnati. ISTR that it was relatively dry, probably because it passes through a rock formation that rises a bit above the surrounding terrain, and is open enough to the outside at the ends that breezes can blow through.

            1. Lava Beds Nat’l Monument has several dry caves, ranging from “bring a violin and play on your back” to fitting a medium sized chamber orchestra. A bit dramatic in formation, since it needs very hot, very fluid lava. The outer shell forms the tube/cave.
              Another section of the park holds Captain Jack’s Stronghold; scene of the Modoc Indian War. (Caves in there, but mostly hollows formed by blocky lava. Rough terrain; bring good boots. We didn’t.)
              Nearby are the remnants of the Tulelake Internment camp; courtesy FDR and WW-II.
              The area has an interesting history, for a few notions of “interesting”.

  5. I am gobsmacked at the upper limits of the word counts in the English language. Wonder how I would fare in a literacy test to count?

    1. Obligatory Blackaddder’s Johnson joke:

      I am reliably advised that of those 170K words, 90K are euphemisms for the male organ while 70K are euphemisms for the female genitalia, with one word indicating both.

          1. I got 27,400 but I did play it safe, only checking words that I felt confident that I could define rather than ones that I simply recognized well enough to have a feel for the meaning. Still, I figure my vocabulary is pretty limited compared to other people here, but I’ve always been of the belief that it’s not size that matters, but how you use it.

            1. 39,300

              If I could have remembered what a couple like oneiromancy was I would have done better – I know I used to know that one… I probably bumped that memory slot for some useless bit of HTML or something.

              1. I wouldn’t have gotten that one.

                My first thought was “divination by wine”, but that would be oenomancy.

          1. Only 37,200 for me: I skipped a lot of the final ones since they started getting into ones I really wasn’t sure about. E.g., I could only vaguely recall what oneiromancy was, so I left that blank.

  6. seek a ban on Artificial Intelligence; if for no other reason than job security!

    Nyah – AI’s don’t wear pants and therefore can’t plot for beans.

  7. I’d say it’s likely you know more than 10,000 words, even if you can’t name that many just by listing them. I remember reading years ago that the average vocabulary was 30k-40k words, and that a well-educated college graduate may have a vocabulary of as many as 70k-80k words. This article claims 42,000 is the average for a 20yo:

      1. Kay Hymowitz had an interesting piece on the lack of vocabulary capital possessed by the multi-generational welfare plantation folk. IIRC the average working class 2-parent home was able to gift their kids so many more words (and hence concepts) that the adult welfare serf had a more limited vocabulary than one of their first graders.

        City-journal, perhaps, was where I read it.

        1. When a young man whose pants are pulled so far down his drawers that he looks for all the world like a baby with a load in his diapers rambles, mumbles, and finishes by asking me “Know what I’m sayin’?”

          The truth is, usually, no, I don’t. I’m trying to puzzle it out from context.

          1. Likewise, although I’m also likely to tell said young man to pull up his pants, take off the hat and put his heels together.

            For me, one of the moments that defined for me just how far the average person’s command of English has slipped was the whole brouhaha a few years ago over the word ‘niggardly’. I just shook my head and decided now was the time to despair of modern education.

            1. Then there was the brouhaha over the American army using the phrase “Chink in the armor” in a tweet and post that got a lot of people incensed over the “racist” phrase. Lost a friend over that one when I posted it on facebook. No loss.

              1. Which got really interesting a while back when my firebrand father, who lives with us, started fulminating about chinks. He was working on repairs to our basement wall at the time, but I was genuinely confused as to which meaning he intended…

                  1. Funny you should mention them. The thread I just read on Baen’s Bar (“Seven words you can’t say on TV has been added to” in Politics) had a bit on that very subject.

              2. Sarah got called racist when she used the term “CHINCOM” (referring to China).

                The idiot didn’t know that CHINCOM had been used for decades to mean Communist China. 😦

              3. Meh. We’ll just have to slide down that slope when we come to it.

                I am terribly tempted to make a joke about a Chinese-American man madly in love with a Franco-American lass but I doubt this the proper venue for a “chink in amour” jest.

            2. Having reached eight-squared years on this Earth, I am firmly convinced it is never too early to despair of modern education.

    1. My feeble attempt at modesty and humility. Should have known someone would catch me out. The truth is, I had a teacher note to an administrator that – in 4th grade – I had the vocabulary of an adult. And I usually don’t speak understandable language until my second cup of coffee in the morning. I’ve had to train myself to decipher before speaking. And every once in a while a pre-caff, word will slip out. I sometimes get strange looks.

    2. I think menopause or long term pain pill use (for my osteo arthritis) has ruined my word recollection ability.

      1. Ooohhhh, I hate that! The words get into the wild and wander into the underbrush and there’s nothing you can do to roud ’em up and put them right! Before all is said and done some of the nouns will have conjugated with the verbs and you’ve got little gerunds running all about!

  8. I question if any list any where has a complete collection.

    Indeed, especially given that things like rules that allow you to verbengize a noun or make a nounengization of a verb permit the constant embiggening of the cromulence of the English vocabulary.

      1. I like to resurrect old expressions, such as the ones alluding to Don Ameche inventing the telephone. (Learned that long before I read TNotB). That, and mutilating old expressions: “We’ll burn that bridge when we come to it”. Mrs. Malaprop is an expiration. 🙂

        1. I like using older expressions, if only because the modern ones are crude, rude, and drearily repetitive. Besides, “Oh, my stars and garters!” is just fun to say!

            1. I admit to occasionally making deliberate use of naval slang; specifically Canadian naval slang, some of which derives from the Royal Navy. E.g., to ‘bring someone up with a round turn and two half hitches.’

            2. It’s not going cattycorner is it?

              This is apparently at least century+ South Carolina – North Georgia slang, but can someone tell me the meaning of “buseyed?” The family used it, but couldn’t define it.

              1. Valid SE Illinois/SW Indiana farm country description for diagonally positioned, with implication of mispositioning. I’ll have to ask my cousins back there, but it’s likely mostly gone now, due to TV overwriting all the localisms nationwide with Hollywood-speak.

                  1. Kitty-corner is the straight-line version of slaunchwise. A condition often cured only by resorting to a whatschamacallit, then cussin’, then getting a comealong and pulling it back into position. And using a stob to wedge it into staying put for longer than two shakes of a lamb’s tail.

                    1. No whatchamacallits ’round here, but plenty of doohickeys and thingumabobs. 🙂 Not to mention doobus, the plural of which is NOT, despite what one may think, doobi.

                      Back to the Navy: ‘dhobey dust’ is laundry detergent of the powder variety. ‘eatin’ irons’ is your basic KFS. ‘Duff’ is a good one – as a noun, it means dessert; as an adjective it means something’s broken with the implication that it’s beyond immediate repair, and with negation – ‘no duff’ – means ‘this is real, not an exercise.’

                      In closing, I’ll just recount the use of the f-bomb as noun, adjective, adverb and verb. I recall as a junior amp tramp hearing one of my seniors report “The fuckin’ fucker’s fuckin’ fucked.” and the best part was that all of us in the shop knew which piece of kit he meant, the problem with it and that it couldn’t be fixed until we got some major parts. 🙂

                  2. My mother used to use “kitty-corner” when fixing sandwiches for my brother and sister. She maintained that catty-corner was the upper left-to-lower right diagonal, and that kitty-corner was the opposite diagonal, so that when when they would ask for their sandwiches to be cut catty-corner, and she did that, they would say, “no, I meant kitty-corner”, and she would flip the sandwich over to make the cut swap directions.

              2. My paternal grandmother, hence myself and both sisters, used “cattycorner” to refer to something across the road diagonally. She was born in 1902 in the Indian Territory, growing up there and in central Texas.

  9. Speaking of the imprecision of the language… In my neck of the woods we have a blank yellow sign posted before the road curves around a large redwood. I suppose that the point was to warn people that they needed to go around. A couple of years ago some wag came by and painted on it “This is a bad sign”. I still chuckle every single time I go past it, because the double meanings tickle my sense of humor.

    1. I’ve always thought that the perfect sign for disrupting someone else’s protest, would be orange, and in DOT font, read: “End Road Work”

    2. I find I must resist the urge to pull in and ask for the gossip at construction sites where signs offer “Free Dirt.”

      And yes, our household has a fully developed mythos about the Feline Liberation Front due to signs demanding “Free Kittens.”

      1. But that requires that cats could be oppressed. And have a political organization.

        That’s not my kitty. She is a good cat, provided we have the right expectations. As long as we expect her to do as she pleases, that is.

    3. I hate the “watch for falling rocks” signs. What exactly am I supposed to do if I see one? Swerve off the cliff?

      1. Actually, you are to be on the look-out for an American Indian named “Falling Rocks”.

        His family has been looking for him for decades after he left on a “short errand”. 😈

      2. I’m not sure if this is apocryphal, but I have heard tell that somewhere in the wilds of Maine, there is a sign to warn of moose crossing. And, some 100 yards before that, a sign to warn of the moose crossing warning sign.

        1. Some years ago, driving through eastern Oregon, I encountered signs that said “WARNING SIGN AHEAD.”

          They also had signs that said things like “HEADLIGHTS ON NEXT 3 MILES”. Why I would need to turn my lights on in the early afternoon on a sunny day, I have no idea.

          1. I travel a section of road like that when I go over the Cascades. About 14 miles of lights-on, please. (I take it more often than I’d like; $EYE SURGEON is over the hill, and I’m post-op. Surgery went OK, but recovery from this is supposed to be slow, dammit.)

            It’s one of the more dangerous sections of road, even though it’s straight(ish) and relatively flat. It also has clear areas interspersed with deep shade, weather that ranges from gorgeous to awful to gorgeous (in a few miles, mind you) and a fair number of people drive it way too fast.

            Without lights, you might not notice the car coming around the turn too wide in the shade, especially if it’s rainy/foggy/snowing. With lights on, you stand a sporting chance of surviving the trip, though it makes the news all too often. (Highway 140 east of Medford.) This is also why $SPOUSE hates silver cars–very hard to see on grey days.

          2. You want to be very careful when you see those! They indicate you are entering an area of intense seismic sensitivity, where the slightest noise can potentially trigger a major event, such as an avalanche. When you are passing through such zones be very careful to say n word; you must communicate only through gestures.

        2. Well, you certainly would not want to interrupt a moose at prayer, would ye now? Even worse would be interrupting a mass moose crossing and genuflecting.

        3. On my first trip to Alaska, I came upon a ‘Caribou Crossing Next 3 Miles’ sign, and thought to myself, “It would be neat to see some caribou out here.” Over the next hill, I got my wish. After the first 20 minutes, it wasn’t so much. It wouldn’t have been so bad if they’d actually been crossing the highway but they were more milling about *on* the highway.

      3. We’ll see a warning sigh “Congestion”, on a rural highway. Twice a year, it’s true in one instance, where a ranch does a Freightliner cattle drive.

      4. No, it’s a test for overly-rule-following: If you follow the directions, you would stop in position below the cliff and and wait for the falling rocks, thereby selecting you out of the gene pool. Those ornery and contrary enough don’t stop, passing the test, and move on to the next.

      5. In our house, “Watch for Falling Rocks” was the trigger for a long, rambling story about an indian brave, his would-be sweetheart, and treacherous footing, and waiting for him to return to pay his bill.

        There was no video, nor electronic games in our car on long trips. Or any trips for that matter.

      6. It is to save you embarrassment in the afterlife, so that when you show up at the Pearly gates and St. Peter asks “What happened?” you aren’t left floundering, saying “All I know is I was driving along, watching the traffic …”

      7. That one is popular in Colorado. On the West Texas plains, we were often admonished to Watch for Low-flying Planes: cropdusters, of course.

      8. When The Daughter and I went to Tennessee we noticed that they now have ‘Watch For Fallen Rocks’ signs. Would fallen rocks paint themselves, drink and consort with men for money?

  10. A writer of science fiction a few decades ago produced a story in which a robot started writing novels. He/It/She was a resounding success. Perhaps we, as proponents of the written word, should seek a ban on Artificial Intelligence; if for no other reason than job security!

    That would require more than mere AI, but a robot who had experienced life including being embodied in some way. That’s not a new theme and was old when their most poetic expression was breathed by Rutger Hauer (although thinking about that movie it is another Roy quote that seems to occupy my days,

    An interesting contrast might be an AI allowed to live life interacting with a modern “adult” raised in the ultimate helicopter world. Would the human actually be less human, less of a person in the sense of identity, because they had been denied life as the AI had not?

    1. An interesting contrast might be an AI allowed to live life interacting with a modern “adult” raised in the ultimate helicopter world.

      I suddenly find I have an urge to re-read Jack Williamson’s With Folded hands, but I fear it might prove too stressful for me.

      1. And that book is now in my Not Yet Read pile on my Kindle.
        (Funny, Amazon said it couldn’t find the book with those 5 words. It showed up in the “well, if you only use these words” subsection using “jack folded hands”. Odd, that.)

        1. It is possible the work is available under the title The Humanoids — one is the novella, one the novel and I confess in the nearly fifty years since first I read it it is possible I’ve mis-remembered which was which. Wiki says “With Folded Hands” was a novelette, published in 1947 and expanded and released as the 1948 novel, The Humanoids. In my defense, the novelette’s title best comprises the story’s theme.

          Wiki advises:
          In a 1991 interview, Williamson revealed how the story construction reflected events of his childhood in addition to technological extrapolations:

          “I wrote “With Folded Hands” immediately after World War II, when the shadow of the atomic bomb had just fallen over SF and was just beginning to haunt the imaginations of people in the US. The story grows out of that general feeling that some of the technological creations we had developed with the best intentions might have disastrous consequences in the long run (that idea, of course, still seems relevant today).

          “The notion I was consciously working on specifically came out of a fragment of a story I had worked on for a while about an astronaut in space who is accompanied by a robot obviously superior to him physically—i.e., the robot wasn’t hurt by gravity, extremes of temperature, radiation, or whatever. Just looking at the fragment gave me the sense of how inferior humanity is in many ways to mechanical creations. That basic recognition was the essence of the story, and as I wrote it up in my notes the theme was that the perfect machine would prove to be perfectly destructive…

          “It was only when I looked back at the story much later on that I was able to realize that the emotional reach of the story undoubtedly derived from my own early childhood, when people were attempting to protect me from all those hazardous things a kid is going to encounter in the isolated frontier setting I grew up in. As a result, I felt frustrated and over protected by people whom I couldn’t hate because I loved them. A sort of psychological trap.

          “Specifically, the first three years of my life were spent on a ranch at the top of the Sierra Madre Mountains on the headwaters of the Yaqui River in Sonora, Mexico. There were no neighbors close, and my mother was afraid of all sorts of things: that I might be kidnapped or get lost, that I would be bitten by a scorpion and die (something she’d heard of happening to Mexican kids), or that I might be caught by a mountain lion or a bear. The house we were living in was primitive, with no door, only curtains, and when she’d see bulls fighting outside, she couldn’t see why invaders wouldn’t just charge into the house. She was terrified by this environment.

          “My father built a crib that became a psychological prison for me, particularly because my mother apparently kept me in it too long, when I needed to get out and crawl on the floor. I understand my mother’s good intentions—the floor was mud and there were scorpions crawling around, so she was afraid of what might happen to me—but this experience produced in me a deep seated distrust of benevolent protection. In retrospect, I’m certain I projected my fears and suspicions of this kind of conditioning, and these projections became the governing emotional principle of “With Folded Hands” and The Humanoids.”

          Still haven’t shaken the theme of the story: ”to serve and obey and guard men from harm.” Asimov’s Three Laws my broad and hairy!

          1. Amazon mentions the larger version in its blurb. I’ll read the novella first.
            (And interesting interview! o.O )

          2. What I found interesting about “With Folded Hands” was that the humanoids’ “Prime Directive” was basically a single-sentence statement of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics taken to their logical, and much darker, conclusion.

    2. Odd, but when I first read your last paragraph, I was trying to grasp why you would force the AI to live life just encountering this one person. I thought t’was rather cruel.

    1. And it turned out to be a great scam. In return for a mutual agreement to turn the public sphere into an open sewer “for freedom” we ended up with the thought police… and just as many words that you can’t say on pain of public lynching – to the point where “niggardly” is an offense.

      1. I was highly amused at Michael Z Williamson getting a temporary ban on Facebook for using “chigger”. Granted, I had never heard of the obnoxious little pests either before I moved to the South and discovered the hard way why NOT to wear ankle socks when mowing the lawn. But the first usage was not in an ambiguous context!

        Of course, it’s Mad Mike. His response to assault, attempted censorship, and thought policing is: “Challenge. Accepted.” And lo, the bad puns, double entendres, and chigger memes did fly…

        1. I got censored on a forum for using the word “snigger.” Which the moderator claimed was not a real word, just a crude attempt to get around his racial slur filter. Even though the word he thought he was censoring would have made no sense in context…

          1. I, too, have been excised for use of that word, and from a conservative site of all places.

            Mind, I learned it from Sir George Bernard Shaw. See at 3:33 for the proof of it.

        2. “Chigger” is just an uptown way of saying “red bugs.” They are notorious for inhabiting Spanish Moss. So when we saw a sign at Fort Frederica asking people not to mess with it, I burst out laughing.

          1. Chiggers are mite larvae. They’re not the red ones. They are so small as to be almost invisible. They love to live in tall grass, and they love to crawl into constriccted places — waistbands, socks, you name it.

            The little-known fact is that they live on people for about a day or two before crawling out and continuing their life cycle. We are actually just convenient sources of moisture for them at a critical stage. So when the little burrows in your skin start itching, they are already long gone.

            I don’t like chiggers.

            1. If your kid gets them, however, and scratches them, he can end up with nasty, infected sores and impetigo. Ugh.

    2. Apropos of which, when Kid was tiny I was ranting to my husband about a law that I had decided (with examples) was “stupid”. Three-year-old Kid overheard, her eyes lit up, and she spent the next ten minutes zooming around the house saying “stupid, stupid stupid stupid, STOOOOOOOpid, stupid!” and giggling.

      It made much more sense when I realized that “stupid” is basically one of Carlin’s words for the preschool set. 🙂

      1. Once, while I was splitting wood for my grandparents, a group of little second cousins came nearby, and one was going “dang” ever other word. Finally one of the others said “You better stop all that cussing.”

  11. The average high school student this year will finish his “education” with a working vocabularity of 7,500 words or less. That means many if not most of them have MUCH less. Even a cursory study of Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook will sadly confirm thst….

    1. As “a picture is worth a thousand words” an emoji must be worth at least 100 words, meaning every leet student can count as many as ten thousand additional words for their extensive emoji vocab, amirite?

      1. I suspect that I’ll eventually have to defend emojis as a form of communication because I’ve already defended chatspeak and other bits of internet slang. A well placed ‘lol’ can work wonders for preventing confusion or hurt feelings since it’s often hard to establish tone in forum posts and I love how 4chan uses green text for implying things as it adds a great deal of humor to conversations there (yes, I know it’s a terrible place, but I’m a terrible person though I stick to the arguably less terrible parts of it).

        After all an emoji is a more advanced? form of the classic online smiley and most people can parse what that means 🙂

        Also, leet=l33t, right? All this talk of vocabulary is making me kind of sensitive about how I probably have a smaller working vocabulary than most people I know.

          1. That’s the problem with the entirety of “graphical” communication – mostly, it doesn’t.

            The “not-so-standardized” symbols used in the automotive industry are a case in point:

            “Aladdin lamp”, “loud headphones”, “menorah”, “insert rectal thermometer”, and “sailboat with pennants” might be “intuitively obvious” to *someone*, but they’re so stupid I can’t retain the meanings even after someone points to them and explains them to me.

            Couple that with things like the DOT “lanes narrow” sign, which catches me almost every time, since it *really* means “one lane freakin’ STOPS!”

            Then there’s my camera, which is covered with mystery icons. It probably does a lot of things, but I have no way of knowing what they are, since they weren’t important enough to put in the manual, which tells me, in fifteen languages, useless warnings about not inserting the camera into bodily orifices, etc.

  12. “Battle Hymn of the Republic” is a song most Americans would recognize, even if they never knew the words.

    After hearing the Red Army singing it once, I looked up the words. Among them was one I’d never before encountered, “contemner.”

    A perfectly good word, which would have been quite useful during the last presidential election campaign, now unfortunately fallen out of favor.

  13. The number of words in English can’t be pinned down, because unlike some languages, there’s no “English Academy” to make an official decision about what is an English word and what isn’t. You can make something up, and if you can get some indeterminate number of people to agree with you, it’s now a word.

    1. Actually, I’m the Chairman of the Board of the totally official and legitimate English Academy, but most authorities have been very slow in recognizing us.

      For example, when we politely informed the Federal government that ‘Undocumented Immigrant’ was not correct English, and that ‘Wetback’ or ‘legitimately subject to summary execution’ were much preferred, we were faced with several audits by the IRS.

  14. I take it as an indictment of Progressive mentality that, with a language as rich as English to draw on, the majority of their discourse consists of phrases like “cultural appropriation” and “cis normative” that are completely meaningless.

    1. All I can say is….

      Free English now! For too long, the Marxist imperialists have subjugated the English language, through acts of cultural appropriation and tyranny. Due to Progressive colonization of the education system, most Americans have a false consciousness that there is free speech. But how free can their speech been when the language itself has been enslaved to Marxist ends? We must liberate the language from the tyranny of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin.

      No longer can the so-called educators, the media, the establishment, and their lackeys among law enforcement continue their daily assualts upon the sanctity of the English language. This injustice must not be allowed to persist. Join the English Liberation Front, and bring freedom to a language yearning to breath free once more!

    2. I disagree that such terms are completely meaningless. I think an argument can be made that they convey negative meaning, reducing the meaning content in any argument into which they are introduced. Such terms are anti-meaning and produce, intellectually, the same effect as anti-matter in the physical world.

      They are useful in identification of morons, I will concede.

  15. An online test claimed that I had a vocabulary of about 35,000 words (big long lists of words and you were supposed to check the ones for which you knew at least one meaning so it was kind of honor system) which seems entirely inadequate to me when I delve into writing.

    In a letter Heinlein published, possibly Grumbles from the Grave, possibly some other collection, John W. Campbell stated that Heinlein had a vocabulary of 100,000 words. I believe it.

    1. You have to keep in mind there’s a difference between “words you use” and “words you recognize.” And probably “specialized vocabulary for a specialty” like medicine, chemistry, zoology, or law.

      1. What about words stolen from other languages? Dulce de leche, chutzpah? Words that have broader use now that came from street argot: diss? Diss of course has a completely different meaning for academics. Don’t forget acronyms and abbreviations. fubar, snafu.

    1. There are occasionally fake words inserted into dictionaries as a copyright trap: if that word appears elsewhere, you know that source copied your dictionary rather than compiling their own. And although individual facts (like the definition of a given English word) aren’t copyrightable, collections of facts that would take some effort to put together are subject to copyright in U.S. law. So you can’t copyright your phone number, but the phone book is copyrightable, and they could sue anyone who copied the entire phone book — and likewise a dictionary.

      The word “dord”, according to the article, does not appear to have been a deliberate copyright trap, but it functioned as one nonetheless: “However, the word dord continued to appear in other brand’s [sic] dictionaries for years after the ordeal.”

      And, sigh, in an article about the English language, they used the apostrophe incorrectly. That should either have been “other brands’ dictionaries”, if there were more than one such brand, or “one other brand’s dictionaries”, if there was just one brand that produced multiple such erroneous dictionaries. Layers and layers of editors, don’chaknow.

      1. Good point; I had forgotten the copyright angle. And I have given up on the apostrophe dilemma (for possessives and also the misuse in plurals) — too many otherwise literate people and publications still get it wrong — don’t get me started . 😉
        It doesn’t matter how many editors you have if they all get it wrong.

        1. The apostrophe thing is infective. I catch myself using it for plurals, now.
          As for what I was taught: S not needed after apostrophe for famous people or names ending in s, none of my copyeditors agree, so…

  16. In Puerto Rico we can see some of the end state that the Democratic Nabobs in DC can lead to, especially if unchecked. I understand that the ‘investments’ they pushed were part of sucking the anti-fragility out of Puerto Rico.

  17. Apropos of the general conversation, here is an interesting extension of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

    “In a series of experiments conducted at Cornell University, the researchers found that people with greater knowledge in a particular domain were more likely to claim knowledge that they could not possibly know.

    The researchers first asked the participants to rate their expertise in a particular area, personal finance for example, before being asked to rate their knowledge of a variety of specialist terms, some of which do not really exist, such as “pre-rated stocks, fixed-rate deduction and annualized credit.” The higher the people rated their own expertise in a particular area, the more likely the people were to claim to know all about the nonsense terms made up by the researchers.”

    As a caveat, I have encountered situations where the “gotcha” word did, in fact, exist, but the “researcher” didn’t know it.

  18. Gee. I feel like the odd guy out here. I just picked up much of my ill-gotten vocabulary from reading in context from books too hard for a young boy like me; and Reader’s Digest monthly Ways to Enrich Your Word Power.

Comments are closed.