“You sure talk a lot,” a student in a front desk informed me once. I might have blushed; I hope I laughed. It wasn’t a malicious comment, at least as I perceived it, merely an observation of a peculiarity of his experience. The youth next to him agreed with him, but then added that he first should hear another teacher of their acquaintance if he really wanted to experience pedagogical prolixity.
“Prolixity!” “Pedagogical!” What’s with all the ten dollar words, a reader might ask.
The fact is, our language, the currency of so much human interaction, is amazingly rich in its possibilities for expression, so rich that it’s easy to be seduced by the joys of its use.
Some experts argue that English has the largest vocabulary of any known language, though how anyone would go about proving that is something of a mystery. Given the wide variety of languages and their various idiosyncrasies, comparisons of this sort are largely meaningless. Some sources claim that English has upwards of a million words. The Oxford English Dictionary, long held to be a standard for authoritative facts about English vocabulary, has in the neighborhood of 200,000 entries, depending on how one counts words containing prefixes and suffixes, for example.
Most adult speakers of English use a functional vocabulary of about 20,000 words (only about 10 per cent of those available!), and in everyday speech and common writing only about 3,000 make up the vast majority. (Considering that Shakespeare invented about 1,500 words on his own that have become regular expressions, 3,000 is a trivial number.)
Our language (and doubtless others, as well) offers wonderful opportunities for creativity and play. Wikipedia lists nearly 80 word and language games, from crosswords, Scrabble and Hangman (letter arrangement games) to games of meaning such as puns and spoonerisms, and even television games like Wheel of Fortune.
A particularly amusing aspect of English has been the ongoing generation of novel collective nouns, that is, nouns that represent a group of more or less identical objects, or objects in a class. An example would be ‘team,’ for example, understood to be a group of individuals united toward a common purpose.
Many of these were coined to fit the peculiar characteristics of animal groups. For example, we have a litter of pups, a flock of sheep, a swarm of bees, and so on. These are common and well-known, generally understood and used by the vast majority of the population.
Others are more obscure. Consider a string of ponies, a plague of locusts, or even a passel of brats! We have a sloth of bears (doubtless related to their hibernation) and a skulk of foxes, a peep of chickens (the sound of the chicks?) and a hover of trout, doubtless chased by a drift of fishermen. Birds, in all their variety, provide an ostentation of peacocks (those show-offs!) and a tiding of magpies, a host of sparrows and an unkindness of ravens, rounded off by a murmuration of starlings and a parliament of owls.
We humans don’t escape. We’re often categorized by occupation. How about a draught of bottlers, an eloquence of lawyers, an example of schoolmasters, or an illusion of painters? We’ve been given a trance of lovers and a trip of hippies, a flush of plumbers and a wince of dentists, a wrangle of philosophers and an indifference of waiters.
How might such a mysterious and playful process of invention be applied to Terrace and its environs?
Consider the city and regional district, each with its clamour of councillors. Or on November 11 at the cenotaph, a majesty of mounties or a drill of cadets? Perhaps for travellers we might enjoy an aggravation of airlines and a hospitality of hotels? In Christy Park, we endure a thump of soccer players and, along my street, a yowl of dogs. Our omnipresent pickup trucks are a flatulence of 4×4’s.
Here we are, contributing to the Terrace Standard: a scribble of writers!
You, too, might coin a new collective noun! Language belongs to the people who make it––people like Shakespeare, or like you and me. Join the fun!