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Archive for the tag “lexicon”

A Soupçon of My Favorite Lexemes

Open DictionaryOpen Culture, a fantastic culture and education website, recently published an article with a list of Bertrand Russell’s favorite words in English. A couple of the words are fairly common, such as wind and golden, but for the most part lists like these tend to be heavy on unusual Latinate or Greek-based terms. One of my first posts on this blog was a similar short list of favorite words, A Learner’s Lexical and Locutionary List. Here is its unsolicited sequel, in which I will nominate a score or more of some additional favorites, mostly unusual and obscure, hand-picked from my various readings over the years, from the million or so English locutions. They were chosen not completely at random but for some felicitous combination of their sound, spelling, sense, and significance. Excepting a handful of the first ones, which are Germanic in origin, they are all typically Latinate or Greek. It seems all writers tend to have their own preferred lexicons (the Open Culture article above links to a similar, even more recherché list by David Foster Wallace), and if so inclined, do not hesitate to comment or add your own suggestions.

Firstly, some general types of words that I love to encounter in any form

Collective animal nouns (someone should coin some of these for human groups):

a shoal of fish, a murder of crows, a pride of lions, a gaggle of geese, a parliament of owls, a tribe of monkeys, a crash of rhinos

Proper adjectives from names:

Shakespearean, Herculean, Tolstoyan, Orwellian, Borgesian, Mephistophelean, Rortyan

Old Germanic causative transitive verbs or adjectives prefixed with be-:

besmirch, bespatter, betwixt, bedraggle, bereft, bemused, besotted, bequeath, bewitch, bedevil, beguile, benighted

Now for the actual list:

cleave (and its participle cloven; maybe the only verb with two opposite meanings)


thralldom (these last two come from the Viking invasions)

blood (pure Old English)





multitudinous (obligatory Shakespeare coinage, without which lists of this type would be immaterial)

threnody (synonyms such as dirge, requiem, and elegy could also make this list, as could rhythmically related words such as prosody, monody, and remedy)












petrichor (“the scent of rain on dry earth”)















metempsychosis (which, as Borges writes, is not reserved for humankind alone)

An English Learner’s Lexical and Locutionary List

English is the most widely spoken language in the world, with somewhere around half a billion native speakers, and up to 2 billion total speakers. It also happens to be the largest language, in terms of the size of its vocabulary. There is no accurate or standardized method to calculate the total number of individual ‘semantic units’ in the language, but many reputable sources place the number somewhere at or exceeding 1 million words. So how did a relatively minor West Germanic language (the only living relative of this branch is Frisian, spoken mostly in northern Netherlands) ascend to such rarified heights? The story of English is interesting, and well-described in a number of books that you can consult on your own for abundant history and information (anything by David Crystal, John McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, Henry Hitchens’ The Secret Life of Words, Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue is fun light reading). In short, a Germanic language influenced by Welsh, Old Norse, French, Latin, and spread through the British and American empires to the rest of the world, where it continues to grow each year. 

A couple of my favorite examples of grammatical borrowings are two strange formations found only in Welsh and English: the auxiliary ‘do’ verb for questions and negatives (Where do you live?; I don’t know), and the progressive present tense as the default present tense (“I am eating; not: “I eat”, like in almost every other language). Anyway, most of the grammatical features, syntax, semantics, etc., are more interesting to linguists; ‘normal’ people are generally more interested by words. ‘Vocabulary’ (Latin vocabularius) and ‘lexicon’ (Greek lexikon) both have the same etymological meaning of ‘words’, which first came from the verb ‘to speak’ in both examples. Given that there are so many words in English, and so many speakers (and readers), perhaps it would be interesting to know how many words the average speaker knows. Surely it is impossible for anyone to reach even a quarter of the supposed million-word threshold, especially considering that a great percentage of those are technical and specialized words or jargon.

There is an interesting project on this website called Test Your Vocabulary, which gives an estimate of your total English vocabulary. It sorts the results by age, and obviously native speakers (~30,000) generally average at least three times as many words as non-natives (~10,000). I was informed that my total was 38,500, though I admit that the methodology seems to allow for quite a bit of arbitrariness in these figures. The important thing is that people respect their language and do not take it for granted. With access to such a rich language as English, and it’s equally rich literary heritage, how could anyone ever stop attempting to learn and use new words? This should be especially true of the hordes of non-native speakers (who outnumber natives at least 3-1), who must work even harder just to catch up. Unfortunately, it seems like many people become somewhat fossilized at a certain point, feeling no incentive or necessity to improve something so fundamental as every-day language. Instead of something always being ‘good’, for example, why not search for more nuance, variety, or even elegance (scrupulous, adroit, or felicitous, to name three)? Without further ado, I will give a short starter list of some words that I find appealing, interesting, or just aesthetically-pleasing– all of which have the potential to spice up a conversation:

  1. inveterate – long-established and unlikely to change (“an inveterate smoker”)
  2. perilous – dangerous
  3. antediluvian – ridiculously old (another good word here is ‘primeval’)
  4. saturnine – melancholy, morose, mercurial
  5. vainglory – excessive vanity
  6. polymath – person of wide-ranged learning (can we agree to use this in place of “Renaissance man”?)
  7. jejune – naïve, simplistic
  8. autochthon – original or indigenous inhabitant of a place
  9. perspicacity – keen insight and sharp understanding of things
  10. recalcitrant – obstinate and uncooperative (“Israelis and Palestinians both maintain unapologetically recalcitrant positions”)
  11. solecism – a grammatical mistake, or a breach of good manners
  12. recondite – obscure, abstruse, or esoteric
  13. avuncular – kind and friendly toward a younger or less experienced person (like an uncle)
  14. calumny – slander
  15. numinous – a transcendent, seemingly-divine quality that arouses mystery and wonder
  16. unreconstructed – unreconciled with current political movements (“he’s still an unreconstructed communist”)
  17. ineluctable – inescapable
  18. ethereal – delicate and light in an almost otherworldly way (“she has an ethereal voice”)
  19. skulduggery – unscrupulous trickery (“Wall Street banks amass untold $$$ through nefarious skulduggery”)
  20. donnybrook – a heated argument or fight (that could possibly lead to ‘fisticuffs’)
That should get you started on your own journey (either real or rhetorical). Enjoy, and let’s do this again sometime.

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