or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

More or Less

Here are two unrelated things that I'm relating nonetheless.

In a comment on yesterday's post, Tony Pius noted that he'd always thought "proboscis" had a hard "-c-", based on its Greek ancestry (if I'm not mistaken, English "proboscis" has a soft "-c-" because we inherited it not directly from Greek but through Latin), and then wondered, "...what else have I been pronouncing wrong all this time?" If it makes you feel any better, Tony and the rest of the world, we all do it; I thought "pasty" as in "Cornish pasty" was pronounced as you would expect, "PASTE-ee", when it's really "PASS-tea". Didn't I feel stupid! I wager that even Williams Safire and F. Buckley Jr. have a word or two that they pronounce incorrectly.

Last night, apropos of I have no idea what, Jim asked me, "How many words does the average person know, anyway?" I rattled off the standard response; the average person-on-the-street knows maybe 10,000, an educated person who's read a lot and also has the augmented, specialized vocabulary of a profession knows about 25,000. And then, of course, I started thinking that that probably was a low-ball figure, because, for starters, how exactly do we define a word? If I know the word "start" and I also know the rules of English, even the fairly basic rules, I probably know quite a few more words: definitely "restart", "starter", "starting", "started", and "starts", and probably also the compounds "jump-start" (and its verb forms), "kick-start" (ditto), and "upstart" (and its plural). Do those all count as separate words? Of course they do. Someone with even a grade-school education can at least form all the usual offshoots of words: pluralized nouns, various verb forms, adjectives formed by adding suffixes to nouns and verbs ("startable"!), and so forth.

If the average person uses five thousand words on a regular basis, clearly a low estimate for most people, then their working vocabulary is going to be at least five times that when you add in the other forms of words. And that's just words they use: most people know words they don't use on a regular basis, so we don't even have a good definition of what a working vocabulary is.

What this all boils down to is that 1) we all know many more words than we think we do, and 2) we may not know as much about all those words as we'd like to think we do.


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