Jim Murphy & Sons

A word by any other name might be one too many

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I am not aware of any endangered words. Some should be, but we seem to keep them all.

I am not aware of any endangered words. Some should be, but we seem to keep them all. When they become archaic we add to the list for the National Spelling Bee. Apparently I had lost track when it was announced that the English language just added its one-millionth word.

The word was “Web 2.0.” Actually, that’s a word and two digits, but let’s leave that observation aside for now. Another candidate for the one-millionth word was “noob,” which is slang for “newbie,” a new user of the Internet. Why we needed a slang variation of another slang word is beyond me.

I would not want anyone to think I am against new words, new “greener” ideas, or in the case of plants, new varieties. I love the word “locavore,” for example (one who eats only locally grown food). And though I have never see a Chacalacca, what a great name for a bird. For some time, it has seemed to me we have enough words already, judging by the advanced rounds of the National Spelling Bee. (Good communication is not about big words. It is about using the perfect word at the right time; fewer is better.)

When Gen. Anthony Clement McAuliffe replied to a German invitation to surrender U.S. troops at Ardennes in 1944, his one-word reply (“Nuts”) went right to the point. What if he had uttered, “Carya illinoinensis,” which sounds like some spell that Harry Potter might have learned in Incantations 101 at Hogwarts. Actually, it is Latin for “pecan,” a wonderful nut grown in the Ozarks. (“Pecan” is from an Algonquian word, meaning a nut requiring a stone to crack. It is one of at least 350 different languages represented in English. There is also the matter of pronunciation. PeCAHN’ can also be PEE-can. Oh, never mind.)

For a blog I was writing, I did a bit of research when the millionth word was announced for a “blog.” “Blog” is a relatively new word, shortened from Weblog, defined as an “ongoing narrative.” Never-ending might be more accurate.

Some of us nudniks in Friends of the Garden sometimes refer to ourselves as “Foggies.” Could this be yet another new word? Number 1,000,000,001. I consulted my trusty online dictionary. It only lists “foggy,” which is entirely different, or “fogey,” as in “old fogey.” I cannot help myself here: Could one of us be a foggy old fogey Foggie? I think so.Who says Scrabble isn’t an outdoor game?

Outdoor Scrabble Game

Who says Scrabble isn't an outdoor game?

Although I have never met a professional word counter, I know they use complicated algorithms to keep track of verbiage, like economists keep track of whatever it is they keep track of to win Nobel prizes, even as they use words and phrases such as “stagflation” or “economic downturn.” And who gets to decide grammar? Sheesh.

The question is begged: To whom do we send potential new words to anyway? Is this a closed shop? Who gets to choose? Who rejects them? Where is the list? Do word counters get stimulus money?

My point here, in case you were hoping for one, is that by comparison we have only about 400,000 known plant species worldwide, including weeds. And about 950,000 insect varieties. New ones are being discovered – but apparently not at the same rate as words to describe them. What if I see a new variety of weed in my lawn? Do I get to name it? Or insect (bite me, you die).

We have about 34,000 endangered plants. Some may hold a cure for dreaded disease.You may have learned that some serve as host plants for butterflies. No plant, no butterfly eggs; no caterpillars, no chrysalis, no incredible butterflies.

As a wordsmith with some four decades of being paid to write stuff like this, I love how words can flow like music that we organize into lyrical tapestries of thoughts, ideas and observations in search of clarity. In music, there are only seven notes in the scale (five if you’re Japanese), and that has been enough.

There are people, some obviously hush-hush employees of the federal government, who have come up with terms like “enhanced interrogation” to avoid other words, such as “torture,” and presumably to avoid being accused of, say, an international war crime. Words can be weapons to confuse and hurt others.

I mentioned that English has words from 350 other languages. Do we really need both “gasbag” and pundit” to
describe TV ‘s talking heads? Pundit is Hindi, by the way. So are khaki, chicanery, chutney, thug and pajamas. And, of course, guru.

For the last day of school, during an evening of pleasant Happy Hour conversation on our patio (or lanai, veranda, terrace, loggia, deck or portico, if you prefer), my wife, Nancy, and I had an idea for a pop quiz for her eighth-grade history students, in which for example, she asked them to name 10 languages represented in English.

Actually, that should not have been hard, but with eighth graders, one never knows, do one. In fairness, the students were told to read all the questions (such as what language we might be speaking now if we had lost the Industrial Revolution?). Those who followed instructions quickly realized they were not being tested at all, and enjoyed watching their fellow students squirm until finally everyone got it. It seemed to be a good lesson at the time.

George Freeman is a veteran journalist and photographer. An award-winning writer, editor and columnist in Springfield, Mo., with more than 50 years experience. His preference is for positive and uplifting stories about people, places, traditions and trends that make the Ozarks one of the most livable regions anywhere. A member of the Garden Writers Association of America, he is a past-president of the Society of Professional Journalists of Southwest Missouri, the Kansas and Ohio AP societies; a board member of Friends of the Garden and a member of the Rotary Club of Springfield. In 1976, he traveled to India as a member of a Rotary Foundation Group Study Exchange Team.

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