It can be argued that English is the richest of all the world’s languages. If nothing else, it certainly has the most words. Scholar’s estimate that our language now has in excess of 500,000 words or word forms—excluding technical and scientific words, which add another 150,000.
Compare that to the second most word filled language, German, which has approximately 185,000 words, or even French, which has but 100,000 words.
Years ago the good sisters of St. Celestine taught us that we should always underline or in some way mark any word that we looked up in the dictionary. I use a yellow highlighter these days and I thought it might make for an interesting commentary if I flipped through my Webster’s Unabridged and wrote about some of the phrases and words that I’ve highlighted over the years; perhaps some of these have bemused you as well.
Has anyone ever used the term “bated-breath?” Have you ever tried to spell it? Well it’s not ‘baited,’ it’s ‘bated’ as in abate. How about to “pore over.” The correct spelling is “pore,” it’s what we do to a manuscript; pour is what we do to a stack of pancakes.
How about “straitjacket?” The proper spelling is ‘strait’ as in The Strait of Gibraltar, i.e. it’s narrow and constricting, not straight as in without twists or curves. Here’s another beauty, have you ever sat in a chaise longue? A chaise longue is a long chair; it’s not a lounge.
Does anyone remember the scene from Animal House when the Otter runs into Mrs. Wormer in the produce department of the Food King? As I recall Otter and Mrs. Wormers were ‘discussing’ cucumbers when Mrs. Wormer corrected Otter on the difference between “sensual” and “sensuous.” With both words it’s the senses that are being gratified, not the mind. ‘Sensuous’ is an uncharged term that applies to the type of pleasure we receive from music, art, and scented candles. ‘Sensual’ has more to do with erotic pleasure and indulgence such as lust, gluttony, and other passions that are less than our local pastor would ask us to aspire. Make the ‘sensual/sexual’ connection and you won’t have any difficulty distinguishing the two.
This one is easy but it’s misused all the time. What did you “imply” and what did he “infer?” We can “imply” something in a remark to a friend, who in turn may “infer” something from it.
How many of us accept certain events or statements as being factual? When we do, we “presume” something. However, when we “assume” something, we postulate about its veracity. Presuming has ‘anticipation’ tied into its meaning, it ‘implies’ jumping the gun and taking liberties, hence the adjective, presumptuous. We all remember the words uttered by Stanley on the banks of Lake Tanganyika when he said, “Dr. Livingstone I presume?” His statement was correct; while saying ‘assume’ in that circumstance would have been improper, besides, all of us know what “ass-u-me” really means right?
This next one has always been difficult for me and you’ll not see me use either word very often. “Affect and Effect.” “Affect” is a verb most of the time and it ‘implies’ influence. “Smoking can ‘affect’ ones health; how has it ‘affected’ yours?” “Effect” is the equivalent noun. “Smoking has had an ‘effect’ on me and my health.” However, I always seem to get into trouble when ‘effect’ is used as a verb. When ‘effect’ is used as a verb, it carries with it a meaning much more than just influence; it brings a sense of purpose or impact. “I must effect my plan to stop smoking.” Even my spell-check gets this one wrong!
Another favorite is “Continual” and “Continuous.” ‘Continuous’ is uncompromising. A ‘continuous’ slope or something steady, unbroken, and invariable, without even a temporary reversal or a tiny interruption. ‘Continual’ on the other hand allows for gaps and suggests that something reoccurs at regular intervals with time out in-between. “Young children ‘continually’ interrupt their parents.” Continuous is usually more serious in nature, even scientific, as in an astronomer’s theory of ‘continuous’ creation. In normal conversation, ‘continual’ is what we usually mean—it’s more figurative and it describes how things seem, feel or strike an onlooker.
As an adjunct to this commentary, I will tell you that I ‘presume’ we’re going to have a great ski season in ’02—’03. You can ‘infer’ what you want from my comment including the prediction that we’re going to be in for ‘continual’ storms rolling through the Valley; and if you spend any time on the slopes, chances are you’ll be ‘affected’ because gliding through foot deep powder is a rather ‘sensuous’ feeling, no to mention that fact that women’s ski suits have a way of enhancing the ‘sensual’ curves of the wearer, don’t you agree?