Beware the Power of the Word – Particularly the Wrong One

Words are important. If you bungle one, look out! You run the big risk of sounding like Archie Bunker, the character from the 70s iconic sitcom, “All in the Family,” who routinely misused words. One example:

“Your honor, may I encroach the bench?”

Believe us, you don’t want to sound like Archie Bunker…

Archie Bunker
(Credit: CBS)

That’s one of the reasons words are our most recent theme. There’s a big universe of words and it’s growing, so choose carefully.

In this story, there are a number of examples of people not using words correctly. Funny stuff, yes, but it can lead to much embarrassment.

Indeed, here are eight rather common words you may not realize the true meaning of.

One also has to be careful of using words that may have a double meaning. Take “rolling” as in rolling along for example. Sounds like everything is operating smoothly. But, in slang, rolling also means being high on the drug ecstasy. So be careful to report that your transportation project is “rolling along,”as rolling isn’t just about tires and rail lines.

Boys rolling tires
(Credit: Martha Cooper)

We also have to be careful with words that are pronounced alike, but have a completely different meaning. Check out this story about the pratfalls of homophones.

Unintended communications happen because the English language is complicated, organic and tough to quantify. Heck, there’s even much debate over how many words make up the English language.

You might think that in itself would be a pretty simple undertaking. But it’s not as easy as taking the dictionary and counting the words. That’s because there are significant disagreements over how we should count our words. Merrriam-Webster, which publishes dictionaries and who contributed to the blog theme last month, notes how there are different inflections of a word, case in point – “drive” and “drove.”  Is that one word or two? And what if the word has different meanings. Should it count as one word only? Or a word for each definition?

Those examples are not the only problems we face when trying to determine the number of words. What about words that aren’t really English?  For instance, do we count “spaghetti,” which is actually an Italian word, but one that’s used daily in America, particularly by Chef Boyardee.

The Oxford Dictionaries notes, “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?”

Both dictionary giants have about the same number of entries in their most comprehensive dictionaries – about a half-million.

Contrast that to the first comprehensive English language dictionary written by Samuel Johnson and published in 1775. Called A Dictionary of the English Language, it was quite the undertaking and took him nine years to write. It was considered a landmark publication because of Johnson’s attention to detail. For instance the word “time” had 20 definitions with 14 illustrations. But, to give you an idea of how our language has grown, his dictionary had 42,773 entries.

Where do all these new words come from? Well, we create new words to reflect our changing society. For instance, cyberbullying, is now a word. It describes how people use the Internet to attack others. It was first coined and defined by a Canadian educator and was soon used so often, it became a part of our vocabulary.

But we also lose words. For instance, ever hear the word, “aquabid,” anymore? It’s a water-drinker.

There are number of ways new words are created. Some are completely new, à la cyberbullying. And some are shortened versions of existing words. The word, “flu” comes from the word, “influenza.” Here’s an article spelling out the different ways words are created.

While the dictionary folks are pretty much on the same page when it comes to estimating the number of words we have, others disagree. They think the number is much higher than a half million.

For instance, Google, along with Harvard, has been involved in an immense research project – the digitalizing of millions of published books into a database. By doing so, it came up with an estimate of the number of words in the English language – about a million. And the numbers are growing rapidly, about 8,500 words a year. That helped validate a claim by the Austin, Texas-based The Global Language Monitor that said we reached the million-word threshold in 2009. It put the number of words as of the beginning of this year at 1,013,913 and says a new word is born every 98 minutes.

The ironic part of the debate is that regardless of the number of words that we have at our disposal, we don’t exactly use all that many of them. The average American adult, depending on his or her education level, knows between 30,000 and 60,000 words.

And we don’t use many complicated ones either. According to Oxford Dictionaries, the most common word in writing is “the.” The most common noun is “time.” The most common verb is “be” and the most common adjective is “good.” For the full list, go here.

So pick carefully while you’re using all those words. And keep Archie Bunker from rolling along.

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One thought on “Beware the Power of the Word – Particularly the Wrong One

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