Do you know how many words there are in English? Well, it depends on what you count (and what you don’t) but most commentators agree on a number somewhere around the million mark.
Phew, that’s quite a lot! But don’t worry, as it’s estimated that most educated native speakers have a lexicon (the number of words they know) of about twenty thousand words. And to survive in English, you probably need a basic lexicon of about two thousand words.
But where do all these words come from? Well, from a variety of sources, including words from other languages, but we’ll look at these in future blogs. This month we’ll have a look at a special kind of word that seems to be made up ‘out of the blue’ but actually often comes from the human taste for playing with words. After all, isn’t that the basis of most of literature, especially of poetry - and now that Bob Dylan’s been awarded the Nobel Prix for Literature, perhaps we can add song lyrics too.
Rhymes and rhythms
Children, of course, love playing with words: here are a couple of excerpts from children’s rhymes in English:
Georgy Porgy came out to play Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
Jack and Jill went up the hill Eeny meeny miny moh
Hickery dickory dock Incy wincy spider climbed up the waterspout
You’ll probably know some or all of these rhymes, and if you don’t, try googling them to find out how they continue. Ah, googling, another new word!
These examples of this playful propensity for repeating syllables, vowel sounds and/or consonants within and among words are clever uses of the technique known as ‘alliteration’. The word is derived from the Latin word ‘latira’, meaning ‘the letters of the alphabet’ and examples have been around a long time. Perhaps the first recorded instance in English is the great eighth-century Anglo-Saxon poem Beowolf:
Hot-hearted Beowulf was bent upon battle
Here’s Shakespeare playing with alliteration in Romeo and Juliet:
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life
Can you see and hear the repetition of the sound ‘f’ and’s’? The effect is to give the lines a musical rhythm, which becomes an almost hypnotic rhythm, in fact, in Samuel Taylor’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,
The furrow followed free;
We were the first that ever burst
Into that silent sea.
Catchy and cool
But it’s not only in poetry that we find alliteration: it’s all around us. Alliteration helps to make a name catchy and memorable and many famous actors are known by names that are alliterative (and many were made up): Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, Ronald Reagan, Robert Redford, Nick Nolte and Silvester Stallone, to name just a few.
Because alliteration helps to make words memorable, we see examples in advertising slogans everywhere:
You'll never put a better bit of butter on your knife. (advertising slogan for Country Life butter)
The daily diary of the American dream. (a slogan of The Wall Street Journal)
And of course brand names abound (there we go again!):
Dunkin’ Donuts PayPal Coca-Cola The Horse and Hound (pub)
Testing times with teenagers
What I find particularly interesting is that this playful ploy is carried on into adulthood and there are many expressions, adjectives, adverbs and nouns which use this feature of English, especially in informal, everyday English. By the way, apart from the highlighted examples, this article is littered with alliteration (get it?). Have you noticed any? We actually use them quite frequently, often without even realising we’re doing it! Can you see any in this (slightly contrived) transcript of a conversation I had with my teenage daughter some time ago? Clue: there are three.
Alan: Amy, you’re room’s such a mess!
Amy: What do you mean?
Alan: Look, everything’s topsy-turvy. Your clothes are all over the floor and those in the drawers are just chucked in higgledy-piggledy, with no rhyme or reason.
Over to you
1 Many of these expressions are compounds, where the second part repeats a sound in the first part. Here are a few endings of such compounds: do you know or can you guess what the first part might be? Don’t peek at the answers below!
bustle drum jumbo hush raff nilly
turvy duddy panky dally piggledy
2 So here are the answers: do you know what they mean and how they’re used?
hustle and bustle humdrum mumbo-jumbo hush-hush riffraff
willy-nilly topsy-turvy fuddy-duddy hanky-panky
3 Now try this exercise for clarification:
Fill in the gaps (without looking back!)
1. The books were stacked higgledy- __________ on the shelves.
2. She doesn’t like the countryside because she misses the hustle and __________ of the big city
3. The whole affair was very hush __________ - no-one knew about it until it was over
4. The government's topsy-_______ priorities mean that spending on education remains low.
5. There was a bit of hanky-_______ going on at the Christmas party.
6. She warned her son to keep away from such riff_______.
7. Don't dilly-____ - just get your things and let's go!
8. They think I'm an old fuddy-________ because I don't approve of tattoos.
9. You don’t believe in horoscopes and all that mumbo________, do you?
10 Most of the work is fairly hum_______
11 Don’t use your credit card willy-_______
If you’re still not sure about the meanings, look them up on any dictionary website.
4 Finally, think about these questions: what would your answers be? Better still, why not discuss them with a colleague?
1. Is any room in your house often topsy-turvy?
2. Do you like the hustle and bustle of big cities? Or do you prefer a slower pace of life?
3 Would you say there’s a lot of riff-raff in the area you live in?
4 Do you dilly-dally before making a decision?
5 Would you say you’re a bit of a fuddy-duddy?
6 Is your work fairly humdrum? Or is there quite a bit of variety?
We’ll look at a few more of these in our next blog. Until then, stay serene, keep cool, take your time and while away your time with lovely alliterative language!
Copyright Alan Marsh 2016