Tuesday, July 20, 2010

In all humility.

The average two-year-old has a vocabulary of a few hundred words. At five or six years old, it's expanded to 2,500 to 5,000 words, and the child goes on adding words at a rate of 3,000 a year -- that's eight new words a day! -- until the end of formal education, when acquisition tails off drastically. Final tally: anything from 20,000 words to 75,000, depending on which expert you consult. (The range is all to do with whether you count inflections and variant meanings of the same word.)

There are more than a quarter of a million definitions in the latest edition of Chambers Dictionary, the crossword enthusiast's tome of choice. But unless this is your bedtime reading, or you're studying for a Scrabble competition or a spelling bee, the chances are that, by the time you're an adult, new words come along so rarely that you can remember the first time you heard each one.

Yeah, from time to time we jump back into the flood, with a new job or field of study, say, or a flurry of so-called advances that give us "twitter" and "blog" and "meme" and "iPad." I had some swift learning when I moved to New York. Sure, I already knew all those common British/American differences that irritating schoolboys like to trot out -- mainly the parts of cars -- but what was "taupe"? (The English would call it "beige.") And I'd never heard the word "faucet" in my life. ("Tap.")*

Today, I had one of those learning experiences. An NPR correspondent from Florida, floundering to end a sentence about the effects of the oil spill, used a catch-all ". . . and elsewise." And I'm about to leap on this hideous formation -- for the British, the addition of the suffix "-wise" to any word is seen as the worst excesses of the American advertising industry -- and compose a smug little post, no doubt bringing in a reference to La Palin's recent "refudiate" (God, it's like fish in a barrel with her). Only something made me check first.

And there it is. "Elsewise." In several dictionaries. Meaning just what you'd expect it to mean. Used by my second-favorite author Charles Dickens in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, no less. (Which means I must have come across it before and failed to store it away.)

It's true: you do live and learn. Still.

*Big problem. When you have an English accent, nobody likes to correct your Briticisms, so you continue to use the wrong word for years.

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