Thursday, April 19, 2007


Happy or unhappy? Filled with happiness or unhappiness? Taking on a lot of responsibility, or are you completely irresponsible?

You don’t have to answer those questions – but do take a look at how English builds words to mean one thing, and alters it slightly to mean its opposite; or to mean one thing as a noun, and another as adjective. We take a base word – like happy or responsible – and then add prefixes (little endings before the base word) or suffixes (after the base word) to make the proper changes and meanings.

What we don’t do much is to take full-bodied words or ideas and stick them together, two or three at a time, to come up with a single word. Germanic languages do this all the time. For example:

Got a safetystrikewood?

That’s the literal name in German for the little wooden stick whose rough, rounded end (dipped in a sulfur paste) creates a flame when struck against the textured surface of the little box it comes in. That’s right – a match, or a light. But in Berlin and Zurich and elsewhere in the Germanic world, safety matches are called Sicherheitszundholzer (zee-here-HIGHTS-ZOOND-holtser) – a name practically longer than the object itself.

And if you happen to be in Germany and feel the need for speed, you might want to drive on the Autobahn, or highway, where there is no Geschwindikeitsbegrenzung ((guh-SHVIND-i-kites-begrens-sung), or speed limit.

And speaking of driving with long words, some American friends of ours who have been living over in Holland report, “We routinely receive bureaucratic mailings with words of up to 25 letters in them, such as the pretty straightforward ‘vergunninghoudersplaatsen’” or “permission-holder-plate,” or ‘license plate.”

English could not possibly come up with such long names for anything -- we start choking on words longer than “surreptiously.” But our German and Dutch language cousins glom together nouns, noun endings, adjectives and other syllables to create a new word or give the old one an added meaning. This type of linguistic pile-on is what so astounds, assaults, and baffles English speakers trying to learn these languages. Mark Twain once said that some German words are so long they have a perspective, and for once he might not be exaggerating.

Nevertheless, Germanic long words should not be confused with English’s big words (last posting’s topic). Big words are the longer, less familiar words that can substitute for shorter, more common ones; these words can be fairly short but still sound inflated or pretentious: “obtain” instead of “get” Or a phrase like, “I recommend that we hasten our exit,” instead of, “We should get going!”

For length, even fancy, Latin-based English words, like “beautification,” “romanticism,” and “inauspiciously” are usually not more than 15 letters and four or five syllables long, being strung together with one base word plus a little prefix and/or suffix. In the end, English prefers language the way the crow flies – direct and fast, with the easiest words and the fewest syllables possible. Long words, like big words, are not really nurtured in our tongue.

Yes, long words exist in English, but mainly as scientific or medical terms. We take a Greek or Latin root – say, “derma,” which is Greek for “skin” and then add an ending, or “suffix” to describe, say, an expert in the study of skin -- and zing! --we get “dermatologist,” or “skin doctor.” To make that word longer, you might be able to become an expert in the study of elephants; for this word, English takes the Greek, “pachyderm” for elephant (which literally means “thick-skinned”), adds the proper suffix and we’ve got a “pachydermatologist.” Of course, if you wanted to be an expert in elephants’ skin, you could possibly then become a “pachydermadermatologist.”

The longest non-scientific word in English is “antidisestablishmentarianism; that 28-letter, 12-syllable whopper is not, however, a “ big word.” If that word is used at all (outside of a spelling bee or crossword puzzle), it is probably in some context referring to its meaning – a 19th century movement involving the Church of England. It’s just not something that can be switched for a more common term and dropped casually into conversation.

In fact, the word “antidisestablishmentarianism” does not really make sense: broken down, its 2 prefixes, “anti” and “dis,” are two negatives, “against” and “not;” + establish (a verb)+ment (making establish a noun) + arian (turning it into an adjective) + ism (turning it back into a noun, and specifically one meaning an action, process or practice – like terrorism or favoritism). So you’ve got the original establishmentarianism, and the movement against it – disestablishmentarianism; so if the antidisestablishmentarianists are against the disestablishmentarianists then are they PROestablishmentarianism? If so, they are merely the regular “establishmentarianists.”

Breaking down German words is easy in comparison. Let’s go back to “match” and “speed limit.” You might be wondering how Germans could take two such ordinary, everyday ideas and morph them into such consonant-crammed tongue-twisters. Here’s how:

Sicher (zee-here) means “sure” + heit (an ending, like “ness”) + zund (zoond) “strike” (as in the action with the stick against the box) + holz (holts) “wood.” So a match is a surenessstrikewood.

Geschwind (guh-SHVIND) seems to start with the word, “Wind” (just like our own word); tack “sch” onto Wind for Schwind” which suggests “dizziness;” add “Ge” to “schwind” and you’ve got “fast” or “rapid;” + “ig” (a suffix, like speed-Y) + keit (an ending, like “ness” to make it a noun); meanwhile, Begrenzung comes from the word for “border,” which is “grenze;” and a “BEgrenzung” is a boundary. So “speedynessboundary” to them becomes “speed limit” to us.

It’s a whole different approach to word-making than English.

Let’s say you’re in the mood for something sweet; you go to the “Backer” (pronounced “baker”) whose specialties include pie crust (“Geback”) and pastries, or “Feingebackenes,” or roughly, “finebakedthings.” Let’s say you can’t decide what tasty treat to choose, so you ask for a finebakedthingsselection, or, “Feingebackenesauswahl.” (“Wahl” means “choice;” aus (out) + wahl = selection.)

Meanwhile, there are other languages with long words, including llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch; this 58-letter Welsh word means "The church of St. Mary in the hollow of white hazel trees near the rapid whirlpool by St. Tysilio's of the red cave.”

The longest place name in the United States is a little lake in Webster, Massachusetts with the official Native American 45-letter name of Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg; locals say the name means, “You fish on your side; I’ll fish on my side, and no one fishes in between,” though no Algonquin expert exists to vouch for that translation.

And yet the Welsh and the Algonquins – separated not only by an ocean, but by completely different racial, linguistic, and cultural roots – both created specific place names by linking meaningful words together, rather than separating them with space or a hyphen; and behold – two names, both almost impossible to pronounce but which allow for no confusion as to which town, or which lake one was talking about.

Meanwhile, I challenged some of my Swiss German students to come up with some words longer than antidisestablishmentarianism, and they easily offered:

Fussballmannschaftsspielerinnen = football (i.e. soccer) + man + (“schaft” – a noun ending) = team + spiel (play) + er (player) + innen (feminine ending, plural) – (thank you, 8-year-old Sina!) 31 letters;

Hauptstrassentunnelabschrankunge = main-street-tunnel-barricades (for stopping traffic into a street’s tunnel) 32 letters;

And tied for first place with 38 letters each:

Schifffahrtsgesellschaftsangestellter = ship-travel-company-employee (aren’t those 3 “f’s” in a row fffantastic?!); and

Versicherungsgesellschaftsvorsitzender = insurance company big boss (or literally: the one who sits in front of everyone)

In Mark Twain’s 1880 book, A Tramp Abroad, he mentioned that a North German man had a word of thirteen syllables surgically removed from his throat, though ultimately the operation was not successful.

But what all languages do seem to share is the ability to break down and build up words as needed, through the adding or subtracting of different prefixes, suffixes, or word parts. It reminds me of those Build-A-Bear stores, where you can make your own stuffed animal. You begin with a lining (bear, tiger, or Hollywood movie tie-in product of the moment), add stuffing, a voice box (or not), and clothes. You make the choices and make the stuffed animal just the way you want it. Words are not so custom-built, but if they were constructed in a store like the stuffed animals, a typical morning workshop might go like this:

Shopper: I’d like a word – something that describes the process of making a neighborhood go from being a terrible pit to something … nice.
Clerk: We’ve got “pretty.”
S: No, that’s an adjective. I need something to describe the process.
C: Well, that would be a noun. Hmm. You could start with “beauty” but you’ll need an ending for that.
S: (looks dubious) And add what: i-f-y? Beautify? No, that’s a verb. How about adding f-u-l, for “beautiful” and then …
C: We’ve got a stack of noun endings right over here, fresh off the truck. Here’s your “m-e-n-t” pile; here’s “n-e-s-s” and “s-h-i-p” --
C: Yeah, you know – friendship, citizenship – Ah! here’s a great stack of “if-i-ca-tions.” Play around with them, and I’ll check back with you.
(a little later)
S: I’ve come up with “beautification” but it sounds too garden-y. My word has to express that the whole population of the neighborhood changed.
C: Populification? That’s not a real word -- but new words are on sale today.
S: No thanks.
C: Let’s try some other Latin form for “people” or “race” – gens, gentis. Gen … generation, general, gentry – ah ha! Here you go: try this: Gentri …
S: Gentri --?
C: Now, stick on the ending of your old word –
S: Gen-tri-fi-ca-tion? Yes! Gen-tri-fi-ca-tion! Perfect! I’ll take it.

Of course, in German, Algonquin, or Welsh that might be something like Peoplemoneyspiffupneighborhoodbringnewproblems. And bingo! A new word.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Beware of BIG WORDS

In English, when we speak of “big words,” it’s generally not a good thing. “Big words” – words usually of Latin or Greek origin that are not instantly understood, are hardly ever spoken or even pronounced properly – are the verbal equivalent of fake jewelry trying to pass itself off as the real thing. Big words are out to impress, mislead, or intimidate – but most often they just confuse and annoy. Don’t get me wrong: I love a good, rich vocabulary – but big words are mere pretenders to the throne.

English, having been created by the peasant masses – not royalty or the upper classes -- is not a language where long, fancy words can safely camouflage themselves in daily conversation. Words like “get,” “have,” or “do” serve so many linguistic purposes, they’re like maid-butler-gardener-and-chauffeur all in one; the minute an “obtain” or “possess” or “accomplish” appears instead, it is quickly taken in for questioning: was that word necessary, or is the speaker trying to put on airs?

Big words happen when we forget who we’re talking to. A humorous, small business website demonstrates what happens when big words are left to their own devices:

In promulgating your esoteric cogitations, or articulating your superficial sentimentalities and amicable, philosophical or psychological observations, beware of platitudinous ponderosity.

Even with a plethora of English words to choose from, words like “plethora” stick out – anyone hearing or reading that word would think, “Why didn’t she just say ‘a lot’ or ‘gazillions’?” “Plethora” is the kind of word we learn when studying for the SATs but never really say. In general, English speakers prefer to hear and speak their language straight up with a twist, and easy on the high-fallutin’.

Speaking of pretension, offers a Word of the Day to all interested in building up their word power. However, given some of their recent choices, I have to wonder if the motivated student wouldn’t be better off reading a checkout counter weekly, like the National Enquirer -- at least those deliver descriptive words you can use: a woman “seethes” with rage (when her 60-year-old husband runs off with his 18-year-old sister-in-law); a celebrity might “brandish” a broken martini glass at an intrusive paparazzi photographer; a well-known politician might have recently been accused of “perjuring” himself on the witness stand. Meanwhile, offers such baubles as:


Most of us can go a healthy lifetime without ever using one of those words. (Or, anyone want to play “Dictionary”?) A few weeks ago, without having checked the link myself, I had recommended’s “Word of the Day” to a motivated French student, a data technologist; in an email last week he asked how he could use these words, either at work or elsewhere. I told him that Harry Potter couldn’t even use them for spells, and to cancel his (free) subscription.

It’s funny, though, that “big words” in English are not especially long; the words above have no more syllables than other, more regular words like beautiful, intelligent, and authoritative. What makes a word “big” is its lack of familiarity, and the reason it’s not familiar is probably because we have a shorter word or simpler phrase to explain the same thing.

For instance, most people would probably refer to “a 70-year-old man” before calling him a “septuagenarian.” Weathermen can talk about “precipitation” but we generally call it “rain;” just as a movie reviewer might call a movie “extraordinary,” “astounding,” and “magnificent,” whereas fans might just say it’s “great.” Still, if those words are used in a proper context and add color or meaning, they can come out as clean and clear as, well, “clean” and “clear.”

But using fancy terms to impress listeners invariably does just the opposite. In the mystery novel, “Death of a Bore,” by M.C. Beaton, a pompous, second-rate writer attempts to explain his craft to a room full of practical Scottish highlanders:

“Perhaps we will discuss linear progression,” the writer said.
“Do you mean plot?” called Hamish.
“Er, yes.”
“Then why not say so?”

There are times, however, when the formal phrase serves a purpose. One occasion is the written acceptance to a formal party, and the standard, Emily Post reply is downright Victorian:

“Clara Jones and Joshua Smith accept with pleasure the kind invitation to the …” (insert: birthday party, bar mitzvah, debutante ball or whatever), etc. Using this format might sound retro, but it is easy for the respondent, since you don’t have to think of anything clever to say yourself – and you can ad lib informally, if you like; it’s also useful for the party planner, since it immediately says who the potential guests are, and whether or not they can come; and yet the language and structure acknowledge the formality of the event in a way that “Yes, we can come!” simply cannot.

One of the first times I came across a big-word style expression was when I was about 10 years old and reading an Archie comic book. Smithers, the tuxedo-clad butler to spoiled, rich Veronica Lodge had apparently reached his limit and said to his boss, Mr. Lodge, “I wish to tender my resignation.” Tender his resignation? I figured Smithers meant, “I quit” but I realized with that fancy phrase that Smithers was, in short, keeping his cool. Saying, “I quit!” would have sounded angry and emotional, whereas tendering his resignation helped Smithers maintain his butler-ish dignity.

Still, there’s a limit on what we can tolerate, and some of the world’s worst writing appears not in our children’s research papers or book reports, as might be expected by fledglings, but in what could be considered the Capital Cities of Big Words: business, law, and government. There, big-wordy emails, memos, forms, and other documents can get so loaded with jargon and bloated verbosity as to make readers groan in pain.

One such intolerant reader was Martin Cutts, an Englishman who in 1979 stood in London’s Parliament Square and shredded official documents – the first act of the Plain Language Commission, for which Cutts is owner and director. Ever since the document-shredding, this organization has published books and articles, as well as provided writing services to companies worldwide – with the goal of clear, accurate writing.
(See: (In fact, language and grammar sites abound on the Internet – it’s just a matter of taking advantage of them.)

So how do you know when you’re using Big Words, and when you’re sounding erudite? A first step is to ask yourself if you understood what you wrote. Next, ask someone nearby to read what you wrote. Then try it on your boss. These are not full-proof steps, but they do provide an initial screening of sorts.

As you write, remember that some of the best writing and most treasured lines in literature were short and straightforward, though absolutely eloquent:

Take Abraham Lincoln’s three-minute-long “Gettysburg Address” (‘Four-score and seven years ago our forefathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”); or Jane Austen’s opening to Pride and Prejudice: (“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune should be in want of a wife.”); or Scout’s description of her town in “To Kill A Mockingbird” (“Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired, old town when I first knew it.”) No big words there. The first two samples are formal, but clear; the third, so easy to understand you can almost feel the flies.

In short, if big words are bad jewelry, then it’s better to keep your language plain and simple than to be caught casting swine before pearls.