Someone recently found fault with me for sometimes speaking or writing with, to use his expression, “$100 words.” I knew what he meant – that I was a word snob – but I also knew that his accusation was ill-founded.
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated with words; by the way they could be sculpted to elucidate thoughts and by the way their sounds frolicked on my tongue.
I also knew that so-called $100 words, or exotic, often multisyllabic ones, are not $100 at all. Like all words in our glorious language, they’re free of charge, not just to me, but to everyone.
One thing this person’s query got me to thinking about, however, was the true value of the language units we call words.
I like nothing better than reading a book sprinkled with words that are new to me. I keep a dictionary at my side and am always excited to make new discoveries.
Even more delightful than that is finding out that they often spring from ancient cultures and that all who read/hear them are merely carrying on an expressive concept that perhaps one of our ancestors coined in the dim reaches of the past.
The birth of Modern English is usually pegged at around 1500, historically the dawn of the Renaissance in Europe. That means this crazy linguistic stew we call English has been in existence for about 500 years. English really is a “stew,” too; a proper olio of Anglo-Saxon, Latin and French – there’s been no language like it ever in the world.
Anglo-Saxon words like with, folk and ship are all in usage today the same as they were in the early centuries of the Common Era in England. The Anglo-Saxons also introduced some of the coarsest words still in use today in English – the four-letter ones you can’t say on TV. Anglo-Saxons weren’t called barbarians for nothing!
Latin words were folded into the mix, especially after Britain was Christianized in the 6th century, adding church words like apostle, demon and cloister, as well as plant and animal names like cucumber, ginger, camel and tiger.
French words grudgingly married Anglo-Saxon/Latin when William the Conqueror invaded England from Normandy in 1066 and words like adolescence, harangue and pacification were finally accepted for use.
By 1500, these various words and grammars had become a mélange of the most dynamic linguistic expression on earth – then fittingly and finally given the name English – and it’s kept right on erupting with the joyful noise of literary creativity ever since.
And, as if that wasn’t enough, many times even one word is an entire story in itself. For instance, the word for “denim” cloth came into English in the 17th century. It was named for the French town, Nimes, where it was woven.
The word “salary” is from the Latin for “salt” and referred to the fact that Roman soldiers were once paid with that then-pricey condiment, not with cash.
English words make up an alluring communicative heritage; an ancient literary fabric to which any of us can add our own warp and weft before we, in turn, offer it to future generations.
It’s not elitist to love our language, and I encourage those who allow so-called $100 words to get under their skin to join in this verbal adventure and welcome them into their mind instead.