January 12, 2011

Save the Words

Today, I became a proud parent. My child’s name is Pigritude. Pigritude, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, means laziness. This would be more insulting if my child were a human baby, but fear not: I simply adopted a word from SaveTheWords.org.
An initiative put forward by the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary, SaveTheWords.org provides a seemingly endless collage of words that have fallen out of common usage. These words, ranging from buccellation (the act of dividing food into bite-size portions) to drollic (pertaining to puppet shows), were once as popular as “lol” and “like, um, you know” are today, yet they are now so obscure that even the almighty Microsoft Word Spellchecker does not believe they are words. Click on a word, and a popup screen will invite you to “adopt” it by promising to use it frequently in everyday conversation.
At first, SaveTheWords.org may seem like just another amusing Internet meme. Time changes language, and words fall in and out of fashion all the time—sometimes for the better. After all, do we really need words like sagittipotent (having great ability in archery)? How many people in the world are concerned with mulomedic procedures (relating to the medical care of mules)? Does anyone even play pilladex (game where an inflated bag is hit with hand to keep afloat) anymore? Given the obscurity and apparent uselessness of these words, does SaveTheWords.org have any purpose beyond entertaining English majors and Scrabble enthusiasts?
The Oxford editors argue that it does. “Words allow us to communicate precisely,” they explain in the FAQs section of the website. “Without the right word, well…we’d be speechless.” Clarity and precision may no longer be common features of spoken and written English, but something else is: laziness. And laziness demands brevity (perhaps best exemplified by the recent phenomenon “I’mma,” a bastardization of the already heinous “I’m gonna”). It is a more intelligent version of this brevity that the words on SaveTheWords.org offer.
For example, rather than explaining to your friends that you faked being sick in order to get out of an appointment, wouldn’t it be easier to say that you egroted (feigned an illness)? Instead of writing in your history paper that the British prepared to defend themselves against the French invaders, wouldn’t it be less time consuming to write that they obarmated (armed against)? Learn enough of these words, and you’ve gained a powerful weapon against the dreaded “word limit.” You may also sound like a walking, talking thesaurus for a while, but not for long if enough people start expanding their vocabularies as well.
And that, ultimately, is the biggest obstacle to the Oxford editors’ goal. Learning new words is an active process; osmosis only works if others have taken the initiative and done the hard work for you. Yet osmosis seems to be the favored method of the vast majority of people today, who denounce reading and writing in favor of Jersey Shore (which admittedly teaches its own set of words—“I’mma,” for instance). As a result, we often struggle to say exactly what we mean, having to resort to long-winded explanations when a few words would suffice if we only knew them. We have lost a firm grasp on the language we rely on for communication, and communication suffers accordingly.
It would be a better use of our time to learn so-called “big words” rather than simply label them as nerdy. Having strong vocabularies allows us communicate effectively, efficiently and intelligently. In an increasingly competitive job market, our abilities to do so will be more and more of an asset. Maybe learning the meaning of murklins (in the dark) isn’t the best use of our time, but the underlying message of SaveTheWords.org is that we ought to be paying more attention to our use of language. Adopting a word isn’t going to propel it back into everyday use, but maybe it will teach us to be more clear and concise (something, given the length of this article, that I definitely need to work on). Considering that, I think I’ve done enough ranting for today—after all, I still have two papers to write, a research project to plan and an awful lot of pigritude to conquer.

Anna Meier

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