Recently I turned on our television; it was set on my default channel, which is ESPN. For some reason, the sports network wasn’t televising sweaty guys with tattoos — they were covering a spelling bee! It was an odd spectacle , with adolescents rattling off the correct spelling of words like “zwischenspiel”, which, as you know, means the interlude played between verses of a hymn.
It was interesting to watch for a while, but there was no chest bumping, nostril excavation, or Gatorade showering, so a spelling bee is not a sport. Maybe ESPN’s rationale for carrying it was that there is an element of tension in the contest. When a young competitor was challenged to spell “cymotrichous”, she stalled for time by asking the interlocutor, “Can you use it in a sentence, please?” He did, and even told her that it means “having wavy hair”, but trust me — there’s not a beauty salon operator in any English-speaking country who has ever used that word in a sentence, let alone knows how to spell it.
The experts who publish the Oxford English Dictionary estimate that our language has around a quarter of a million words. Other research suggests that the average person’s vocabulary is in the range of 50-100 thousand words. I guess that means that if you’re really, really smart, there are only 100,000 words or so that you don’t know.
Of course, there’s also a gap between the number of words a person recognizes, and their ability to define them or spell them. Take the word fortnight, for instance. It’s easy to guess how it’s spelled, but what does it mean? It means “two weeks”, and is the linguistic legacy of someone who apparently didn’t know how to spell “fourteen nights”.
Fortnight is not to be confused with “furrow”, which is a groove made in the ground by a plow, although it can also be associated with a wrinkled brow. Furrow has been part of the English language for well over a thousand years, and sometime later got folded into another word: furlong. That was also an agricultural term at first, meaning “a long furrow”.
Eventually furlong became a unit of measurement, equaling 220 yards; one-eighth of a mile. Farmers don’t speak of furlongs much anymore, but it is a term still used in horse racing. For example, a thoroughbred race of six furlongs is considered a sprint.
Well, I’m sure by now you’ve thought of other f-words you’d like to interject, but these few illustrations will have to do. I’m proposing that we cap the English language, throwing out all words that exceed the approximate level of difficulty of these examples. That way we won’t have to feel mentally deficient when we see these twelve-year-old kids rattling off the correct spelling of periscii (“Those who live within a polar circle, whose shadows, during some summer days, will fall toward every point in the compass.”)
How will we get our language down to a more manageable size? That’s a daunting task. I’m going to have to think about it for a fortnight or two.