A surfeit of words

by Terence MacNamee

I do not live in the English-speaking world. Perhaps it is because of that that my bookcase contains a complete set of the Oxford English Dictionary, and that I consult it often.

The OED is a monument to the English language. It is a historical and etymological dictionary and a dictionary of current usage all in one. It gives all the senses of every word, and a series of illustrative quotations. It runs to twenty large volumes.

If the truth were told, English is a bit of a dinosaur: I mean, too big for its own survival. For a long time I have realized that there are too many English words. Far too many. Too many words that mean the same thing, or that have acquired shades of meaning they didn’t have at the beginning. Hence Roget’s Thesaurus, a monstrosity that could only exist in English and should be kept out of the hands of the young. (I had one when I was a youngster, and it did me no good.)

People who write in English have long tried to make a virtue of this vice of excess vocabulary. They aim at elegant variation and avoidance of repetition. They resort to many ways of saying the same thing. Is this a good idea? Hardly. Writers in English, if they care about the language, should swim against the tide; they should labour to say what they mean, and mean what they say, and no more. This recommendation should be extended to the ESL word, especially India, where florid exuberance often leads to silliness.

There is another consequence of this business of too many words which affects the native English speaker – and I have only slowly come to realize this. There are so many words we think we know the meaning of, and we don’t. We learn them from context growing up. We hear them from adults, or read them in novels, and guess what they mean – often inaccurately. This is true of all languages, but in English it is worse because there are so many words.

In my present position, far from the centres of English, I realize how little we know what English words mean. I find myself thinking of English words, and asking myself all the time: what does that word really mean? And then I go to the OED – God bless it – and see the history, the etymology, the obsolete senses, the acquired senses, the changes of meaning, the acquired connotations.

I am learning the language all over again.