Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Magic of Words



For those of you interested in the magic of words there are a few interesting sites worth your perusal - (i) Ask Oxford which is a wonderful site run by the OUP people.  Here is the link: Ask Oxford, and (ii) an equally interesting and authoritative site – called AWAD - from which one can get a daily newsletter with yet another interesting word explained clearly.  The site’s acronymic name stands for A Word A Day and can be accessed by clicking the following link: AWAD.

With the magic a words, it is very hard to know where to start.  I find myself like a child going into a wonderfully large sweetshop where I could literally start anywhere and never stop feasting my eyes before feasting my belly.  Or again I find myself like a child going into a fabulous ice-cream shop like that, say, of Giolitti’s in Rome.  Again this shop has a website which is also worth accessing here: Giolitti.

Last year marked the 250th anniversary of Samuel Johnson's (1709 - 1784) Dictionary which was widely celebrated. After nine years of work, Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1755; it had a far-reaching impact on Modern English and has been described as "one of the greatest single achievements of scholarship".The Dictionary brought Johnson popularity and success; until the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary, 150 years later, Johnson's was viewed as the pre-eminent British dictionary.  He was also recognised as one of the sharpest wits of his generation who could shoot off learned quips as quickly as the mythical cowboy gunslinger dispensed bullets.  There is also an interesting page here worth perusing, namely the Samuel Johnson Sound Bite page which can be accessed here:  S. J. Sound Bite.  I’ll quote a few gems hereunder from our man Johnson:

"Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it."
from Boswell's Life of Johnson

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On second marriages: "The triumph of hope over experience."
from Boswell's Life of Johnson

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"A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization."
from Boswell's Life of Johnson.

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"Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."
from Boswell's Life of Johnson

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"Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel."
from Boswell's Life of Johnson

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The last of the quotations above would seem to be very apt in the contemporary world, given our national and international financial crises.

By way of finishing I would like to give a few statistics garnered from the above sites:

1.The Oxford Dictionary boasts a £35 million research programme - the largest language research programme in the world.

2.The corpus of words at Oxford now contains over 2 billion words of real 21st century English.

3.If all the words in the Oxford English Corpus were laid out end to end (measuring on average 1cm), the total would stretch a greater distance than from the northern tip of Scotland to the south tip of New Zealand. Because the corpus is a collection of texts, there are not two billion different words: the humble word 'the', the commonest in the written language, accounts for almost 100 million of all the words in the corpus!

4. Just ten different lemmas (the, be, to, of, and, a, in, that, have, and I) account for a remarkable 25% of all the one billion words used in the Oxford English Corpus. A lemma is a base word.  For example, “climb” is the lemma of “climbing, climber, climbs and climbed.”  For other interesting facts consult the above link to this site.

5.  A.C. Grayling gives the following word as the longest in the English language: pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis. (Grayling, A.C., The Form of Things, 51).  An early primary school teacher who taught us so well as children apprised me of an important learning tactic with respect to spelling and reading, namely, breaking a word up into syllables or a horrible compound one like the foregoing into its constituent parts thus: pneumono-ultra-microscopic-silico-volcano-coni-osis.  This is a medical word, obviously, and it contains 45 letters and it means a lung disease of the silicosis variety

6.  An educated person would be expected to have an active vocabulary of 30, 000 words, and the reader of a tabloid like the Sun would require a vocabulary of approximately 800 words according to Grayling.  (See ibid., 51)

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