This column concludes my third year of writing “Lederer on Language” for the U-T. What I’ve loved most about the adventure has been its humanity, my connection with y’all, my verbivorous readers.
Samuel Johnson, who gave us the first great dictionary of the English language, wrote, “I am not yet so lost in lexicography, as to forget that words are the daughters of earth and … the sons of heaven.” From the start of this column, I have tried to connect my writing to the humanity of my readership. I have read with great interest your many letters and bounced around my study delighting in your submissions to my contests.
Has it ever struck you how human words are?
Like people, words are born, grow up, get married, have children and even die. They may be very old, like man and wife and home. They may be very young, like Sudoku and ginormous. They may be newly born and just taking their place in the world, like selfie, vape and binge watching. Or they may repose in the tomb of history, as leechcraft, the Anglo-Saxon word for the practice of medicine, and murfles, a long defunct word for freckles or pimples.
Our lives are filled with people and words, and in both cases we are bound to be impressed by their vast numbers and infinite variety. Some words, like OK, are famous all over the world. Others, like foozle (“a bungling golf stroke”) and groak (“to stare at other people’s food, hoping that they will offer you some”), are scarcely known, even at home.
There are some words that we will probably never meet, such as samara (the pinwheels that grow on maple trees) and vomer (the slender bone separating the nostrils), and others that are with us every day of our lives, such as I, the, and, to and of, the five most frequently used English words.
As with people, words come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, backgrounds and personalities. They may be humongous, like pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis, a 45-letter hippopotomonstrosesquipedalian word for black lung disease. They may be very small, like a and I.
Some words are multinational in their heritage, as remacadamize, which is Latin, Celtic, Hebrew and Greek in parentage. Some come of Old English stock, as sun and moon and grass and goodness. Some have a distinctly continental flavor — kindergarten, lingerie, spaghetti. Others are unmistakably American — stunt and baseball.
Words, like people, go up and down in the world. Some are born into low station and come up in the life. With the passing of time, they may acquire prestige (which used to mean “trickery”) and glamour (which began life as a synonym for “grammar”). Others slide downhill in reputation, such as homely (which originally meant “homelike; good around the home”), awful (“awe-inspiring”) and idiot (“one who did not hold public office”).
Words like remunerative, encomium and perspicacious are so dignified that they can intimidate us, while others, like booze, burp and blubber, are markedly inelegant in character. Some words, such as ecdysiast, H.L. Mencken’s Greek-derived name for a stripteaser, love to put on fancy airs. Others, like vidiot and frenemy, are winkingly playful. Certain words strike us as beautiful, like luminous and gossamer, others as rather ugly — guzzle and scrod, some as quiet — dawn and dusk, others as noisy — thunder and crash.
That words and people so resemble each other should come as no surprise. Words and people were created at the same time: Before language trembled into birth in the mouths of humans, it was not fully language; before we possessed language, we were not fully human. Not only do we have language. We are language.
A half-hour documentary about Richard Lederer will begin running on San Diego Channel 4’s Forefront at 5 and 7 p.m. April 28 and May 1.