Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The English Language Needs a Bigger Dictionary

We need more words in English.


This probably seems like a stupid thing to argue for when the Oxford Dictionary says that the English language has something like 250,000 words as it is, but bear with me a moment.

The fact is that our language has a lot of gaps that need filling. Ancient Greek had at least three words (that I know of) to talk about love. And each one of those filled a necessary "niche" that our word love has to multitask in order to fill. For instance, phileo is friendship love. That's totally different from eros, which is romantic love. I personally think this lack of differentiating words for love causes a good deal of problems in the world today, but I'll save that soapbox for another time.

Why don't we adopt more words from other languages to make up for these gaps? After all, English is a mutt language. We have a long history of adopting words from many other languages (boomerang and kangaroo from Aborigines in Australia, tortilla from Mexican Spanish, bouquet and bureau from France, etc.). We even do it in the academic world, often borrowing from German words and phrases: bildungsroman, angst, etc.

One of my biggest complaints about the limitations ("language gaps") of the English language is that we don't even have a lot of words to describe many of our key five senses. Oh, we have plenty of words that describe how something looks. Colors, shapes, movement are all covered in this area. We have lots of words (although not nearly as many) for how something sounds.

But how many words do we have for how something feels? Or smells?

In my opinion, scent is one of the most criminally underrated senses in the written English language. Now, I understand. Scents are much harder to describe using words than sights are. But scents are important. I actually wrote an essay about this for the English 210 (Advanced Essay Writing) course I took back at my Alma Mater.

Although I'm cringing at my old self-important style, the essay still brings up a lot of good points as to how important the sense of scent is in writing, and how sad it is how few words we have to describe it.

[Excerpts from "The Hidden Beauty in Scented Words":]

Think of the words that are used for smells, such as aroma and perfume. Each one slowly rolls off the tongue... It is incredible that just a few syllables can describe a scent and describe it so well. We almost begin to salivate when we hear the word aroma. The word perfume wafts about our noses in a heady cloud... Pungent, redolent, and fragrant all end with a snapping t, a nod to the strong scents that can only be described by such precise words...

[S]cented words’ beauty lies in their novelty and their ability to describe. How little now one sees the scented words of pungent and aroma! Yet these words are so exact! Their connotations are clear, their sound is melodious, and their meaning is easily understood.

Think of times the warm aroma of Thanksgiving dinner floated throughout your household. The scent of turkey, mashed potatoes, and cranberries was enough to make you salivate. Or how delicious was it as a child to race outside during summer vacation and fill your lungs with a whiff of the pungent scent of freshly-cut grass clippings? How often have people passed by perfumed candles in shopping malls, and how often have they stopped, just for a moment, to enjoy the candles’ sharp smell? Yet, were it not for the beautiful words that describe these many varied scents, how could we enjoy memories of these odors through writing? How else could authors so vividly remind us of the savory smell of baking bread or the fragrance of an apple blossom?

How boring would descriptions of odors be if they could only be described in terms of their visible objects! How drab would a composition on scents read if its lines ran something like “the smell of the wind from the south… the smell of the salty sea… the smell of the earth after a rain… the smell of, the smell of, the smell of…”! With each phrase, only the dull word “smell” itself can conjure up the scent in our minds. Without the beautiful scented words, the author would have to make the reader work for every scent. To reproduce any smell in their mind, the reader would have to connect the visual image with the scent that accompanies it. What tedious work! How boring to have only one word that connects to so many scented sensations! Without these beautiful and vital words of smell, readers would have far more work to do, and writers would have far less interesting words to write.

Words should bring to mind a picture, a sensation, or a memory. Words that do this well are good words; they are descriptive and beautiful words. Words that do not evoke a clear image, a sharp sensation, or a vivid memory, are worthless. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but beauty is not confined to the visual world so many are slaves to today. Too many authors ignore the other senses that humankind uses to experience beauty. The soft [warm] touch of sunlight, the uplifting tones of a piano, the taste of a delicacy, and the richness of perfume—all are beautiful experiences; all are examples of beauty. However, so many of these beauties are taken for granted. Touch and taste are forgotten. Sound is used in onomatopoeia, but hardly much else. Smell, so difficult to put into words, is often ignored.

From Him, To Him

3 comments:

  1. I agree that English needs a bigger dictionary. However, we need to fill it with the right words though. It bugs me how "bling-bling" could be in the Oxford dictionary and not "overprivileged".

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    1. Yeah, I want to stab myself with a spoon every time the dictionary adds another nonsensical fad word.

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    2. I hear ya right there. Some words I don't as mind as much like "woke" or "hashtag", but some are just silly. I remember when Oxford added "bootylicious" to their dictionary roughly a year or two after that Destiny's Child song came out and I just facepalmed.

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