There’s a word that describes the smell after rain, another for the rumble of a hungry stomach and one for when you don’t want to get out of bed. “Whimsey” columnist CLIVE WILLIAMS bets you haven’t heard of them…
THE “Oxford English Dictionary” estimates that there are around 170,000 words in current use, with an additional 47,000 obsolete words.
According to a recently conducted study by “The Economist”, most adult native speakers of the English language have a range of 20,000-35,000 words. Eight-year-olds have 10,000 words and four-year-olds have 5000 words.
To read newspapers, you need 8000 of the most common words. The 1000 most common words will get you 80 per cent coverage so in order to consume foreign language content as quickly as possible, you need to learn those 1000 words.
I thought this time I would consider some rarely used English words.
When I was in Defence, I was sure that some of the Five-Eyes intelligence analysts were plagiarising my assessments, so I used the obscure word “lustrum”, meaning five years.
Sure enough, within a few days, other Five-Eyes analysts were referring to lustrums in their assessments!
I never got to use “overmorrow”, which is the day after tomorrow. However, the day before yesterday is just the day before yesterday. There’s no special word for it.
Words in one English language culture may not be common in another. Most Americans have no clue what a “fortnight” is. I suspect we know what it is because our government workers are paid fortnightly. US government employees are paid monthly which is why they do mega-shops with Costco-size shopping trollies, have large fridges and consume lots of preservatives.
Moving right along, the “glabella” is the smooth part of the forehead above and between the eyebrows. It’s an important factor in creating our facial expressions. It determines our facial structure, our profile and our image in general.
The “columella” forms the central fleshy portion between the two nostrils. It is a single midline structure composed of cartilage and overlying skin, extending posteriorly from the tip of the nose.
The rumbling of your stomach is called a “wamble”, while the sick feeling you get from eating or drinking too much is aptly named “crapulence”.
When you combine a question mark with an exclamation mark (‽) it’s called an “interrobang”. It consists of an exclamation mark and question mark superimposed on top of one another. It was first introduced in the 1960s by an advertising agency, and even made its way on to the American typewriter keyboard in 1968. You don’t see it on modern keyboards.
Not many people handwrite these days, but illegible handwriting is called “griffonage”. Getting the dot above the i and j is sometimes difficult; the dot is a “tittle”.
The way the air smells after rain is called “petrichor”. If you find it hard to get out of bed when it’s raining (or at any other time for that matter) it’s called “dysania”. Dysania is closely associated with “clinomania”, which is an obsession with staying in bed.
Occasionally, you may come across an obscure word in someone’s writing. Unless it’s a technical piece, it might seem pretentious as the art of communication is to impart information and entertain, not to send readers scrambling for their dictionaries.
By the way, the first purely English alphabetical dictionary was “A Table Alphabeticall”, written by English schoolteacher Robert Cawdrey in 1604. The only surviving copy can be found at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.
The oldest known dictionaries were cuneiform tablets with bilingual Sumerian–Akkadian wordlists, discovered in Ebla (modern Syria) and dated to roughly 2300 BCE, the time of the Akkadian Empire.
On a lighter note, what’s the difference between a literalist and a kleptomaniac? A literalist takes things literally. A kleptomaniac takes things, literally.
On a numerical note, a man lost the forefingers on his right hand in a freak accident. He asked the doctor if he would still be able to write with it. The doctor replied “Probably, but I wouldn’t count on it.”
Clive Williams is a Canberra columnist
Who can be trusted?
In a world of spin and confusion, there’s never been a more important time to support independent journalism in Canberra.
If you trust our work online and want to enforce the power of independent voices, I invite you to make a small contribution.
Every dollar of support is invested back into our journalism to help keep citynews.com.au strong and free.
Ian Meikle, editor