Friday, January 21, 2005


Depending on the source, estimates of the number of words in the English language – excluding scientific terms – range from 450,000 to 750,000. That's admittedly a sizeable delta, so let's split the difference and call it 600,000. Approximately 600,000 words in the English language.

I find that figure a bit tough to put into persepctive, so I went out looking for some comparisons. The Global Language Monitor ( provides a few that I found interesting. There are approximately:

- 7,300 human languages and dialects;

- 50,000 ideograms in the various Chinese dialects ;

- 100,000 words in the French language; and finally

- 24,000 differing words to be found in the complete works of Shakespeare.

There you have it. With this bit of perspective, let's return to the 600,000 words in the English langauge.

Of those 600,000 words, approximately 200,000 are in common use. The rest, presumably words like "methinks" and "verily", have for one reason or another, fallen out of favor. A relatively educated person has a vocabulary of about 20,000 words. On average, that same relatively educated person uses about 2,000 different words in any given week.

Here's what bothers me. Assuming that I am “relatively educated”, my vocabulary consists of roughly 3% of all English words. Three, count 'em, three little percent. More perspective.

- 3% of women who are on the pill get pregnant anyway

- Permanent rectal injuries occur in about 3% of prostate surgeries

- 3% of the people in the US are vegetarians

- 3% of the Senators in the US Senate are not white

- 3% of all people in the US are naturally red headed

My point? 3% is not a figure you associate with things that are common, usual, positive. You're pretty much statistically at zero. So I'm statisitcally braindead when it comes to language. Not a pleasing thought.

There is an argument that I shouldn’t feel too bad – of the 33% of all words that are in common use, I have in my verbal quiver roughly 10%. Even acknowledging that, I still only use 1% of the common use words in an average week. On any sort of scale, even the scale that gave me a “C” on a college chemistry test for getting 30% of the answers correct, that sucks.

Notwithstanding my apparent failure to harness their full power effectively, I like words. Chances are, if you are still reading this page, you do to. But ask yourself why you like words. To me, words are interesting for various reasons. Some words are nice just because of the way they sound when you say them. Grimalkin. Farrago. Halcyon. Vivisect. Nice sounding words – they feel good coming out your mouth and into your ear. Other words are interesting to us because their meanings are especially pertinent to our lives, our vocations or our avocations. I am a lawyer by trade, so I like the word punctilio. This word literally means "the careful observance of forms" and you never hear it. I like it simply because of a famous quote by a famous judge in a famous case I read in law school. (Note for those interested: Benjamin Cardozo, Meinhard v. Salmon - "joint adventurers, like copartners, owe to one another, while the enterprise continues, the duty of the finest loyalty. . . . Not honesty alone, but the punctilio of an honor the most sensitive, is then the standard of behavior. ")

Still other words may be nearly functionally useless, but have interesting origins. Ab ovo means "from the beginning", and refers to the latin phrase "ab ovo usque ad mala", which literally means "from the eggs to the apples", and in turn refers to the Roman tradition of beginning a meal with eggs and ending it with apples. Will I use this word in everyday conversation? Doubtful. Yet I find it interesting. Another of my favorites, canicular, means "of or relating to the dog days of summer", as in "it's hopeless for me to try to ignore canicular cravings for cold beer". Not a particularly interesting word until you understand that the Latin word "canicula," meaning "small dog," is the diminutive form of "canis," the word that ultimately gives us the English word "canine." "Canicula" was also the name for Sirius, the star that represents the hound of the hunter Orion in the constellation named for that Roman mythological figure. Because the first visible rising of Sirius occurs during the summer, the hot sultry days that occur from early July to early September came to be called "dies caniculares," or as we know them in English, "the dog days."

The point of all of this is simple. Because I like words and feel that the average vocabulary is woefully inadequate, I will be posting here from time to time words that I feel are worthy of being more frequently injected into everyday conversations. Sentences like this should result:

"As I battled my usual post-supper borborygmus, my good friend Chester, a hale embonpoint, arrived, inexplicably dressed cap-a-pie in hiking gear, for some crepuscular causerie, and bolted tantivy for the door when he was no longer besot with my bellicose blovations and magniloquent cockalorum."

More to come.

Thursday, January 20, 2005


Just when you thought you were getting used to nose studs, tongue rings and eyebrow piercings (congratulations to you if you have – they all trigger in me a face that I generally reserve for the occasions when dog crap squirts up through my toes), Dutch eye surgeons have implanted tiny pieces of jewelry called "JewelEye" – METAL -- in the mucous membrane of the eyes of six women and one man in cosmetic surgery “pioneered” by an ophthalmic surgery research and development institute in Rotterdam.

Gosh…call me prudish, but remember the old times -- those lazy days when you’d sit on the front porch, sip lemonade and if need be, go to the hospital to have a metal shard REMOVED from your eyeball…yes, those were the days. Alas, today, the fashion rage is to do things to your body that only a few short years ago would earn you a bunch of sympathy cards and a call from Grandma. “Poor little Bobby, one slip at the machine shop, and the poor dear has a bolt through his nose”. Today, not only does Bobby PAY to have a bolt through his nose, he buys a chain to secure the bolt to his wallet, pants or left nipple.

But, that said, these Dutch surgeons must be onto something because they’re getting $1200 bucks a pop to perform the metal-in-the-eye trick. So I’m jumping on the bandwagon and have come up with a few cosmetic items that I think I can perform with no significant training whatsoever, and for far less money:

- The FashionScab – In this sure to please procedure, I will use duct tape to creatively mask parts of your body, tie you up and drag you behind my car, resulting in a giant oozing scab in the shape of Elvis or another decorative figure of your choice. For an extra charge, I will apply tincture of iodine to the raw and oozing area, which is sure to give you that mysterious and foreboding look that screams “ouch”.

- The GlamourHammer: in this crowd pleaser, which guarantees that your fingernails will be a beautiful shade of purple for 3 to 6 months with no messy paint or annoying fumes, I slam each of your fingertips with a hammer! What could be easier?! Fun at parties! This is practically a spectator sport! Think of the time wasted on clipping and filing nails…with this new fad, by the time the color fades, your nails will fall off completely…GUARANTEED!!

- The HairRazor: I will shave your head with a rusty spoon, raising at least 100 nicks and/or larger lacerations (or your money back), and then delicately place bits of toilet paper, lint, glitter, dog hair…anything that will stick to a pustulant wound…to gain that bleeding edge fashion effect that let’s people know you have less cranial horsepower than the average walnut. Infection is guaranteed!

You want in? I’m raising seed money.

A Dark Day

A dark day...

January 18, 2005 - Robert Pringle, a father of three grown children, successful, married to a lovely and charming wife, wakes up in his suburban home in California. I imagine him walking to a bathroom, having a pee. He gets a cup of coffee, kisses the wife and takes a shower. Now dressed he goes out to his car -- nice day. He runs an errand or two. An average start to an average day in the life of an average person. Then Robert Pringle, "Bob" to his friends, does something I cannot get my mind around. He drives to a nearby trainstation and park his car. He walks a short distance up the tracks and, finding an appropriate spot to launch a plan he has been thinking about all morning, he hides in the bushes. He hears the CalTrain whistle blow. Checks his resolve one last time. And throws himself out of the bushes, into to path of the speeding train. Whistles blow and brakes screech on hardened steel but it's too late. He is struck by the train and killed instantly. Suicide presumed, say authorities.

Why? What imaginable force drags a person to such depths of emotional squalor, that this is the end of an otherwise model life lived with health and happiness? Second question: OK, suicide. Fine. Happens all the time. Why has this particular event worked itself into all of the crevasses of my consciousness, and smothered me like a wet blanket since I heard the news? Worse, does the fact that this resonates with me mean that I feel myself pulled toward a similar, inexorable fate? Why did it happen and why does it strike me so? I am once again overwhelmed with a sense that I have no ability to comprehend so much of what I see happening around me, and that I have no choice but to accept that incomprehensibility, and to find some comfort in telling myself that some things are too dark and horrible for the human mind to grasp.

Your wife and children being swept away in a mudslide while you buy popsicles.

A wave that kills 200,000 people.

In a world where we control so much, I am awestruck by the frailty and smallness of our collective existence.

I know this: I am going to church this week.