Twelve Thousand Words

by Karen Jeynes

I think my relationship with unusual words began in Grade 1. On our first day at school we were all given folders with words on pieces of cardboard, a new kind of building block to play and construct with. But as everyone else eagerly began to make their first sentence, I stared at mine in bewilderment. For you see where “the” should have been there was another word. A word I had never seen before, a strange shape which as yet held no meaning. And so I carried the offending word to the teacher, who sweetly explained to me that the word was “because”. And although I returned to my table gratefully clutching “the”, for it is awfully hard to construct a sentence without “the” when you are five years old, I missed that “because”.

I set out on a quest recently to find 12000 words. Why 12000, you ask? Well because I was working on a play about a “normal” person, and was told the average person has a vocabulary of 12000 words. I mentioned this wordy wondering on Twitter, and @anatinus and @inotherwordscg suggested I ask people. And while the majority of those 12000 are workhorse words like “the” and “and”, I thought it would be far more interesting to ask people what their favourite words are. It seemed as though the internet had just been waiting to be asked. I could hardly keep up with the delightful avalanche of words being heaped upon me. And while Twitter and Facebook laid bare their lexicographical leanings, I started asking people offline, I looked at some of the all-time favourites from my #underappreciated word series on Twitter and posts on That Word Site. And of course I added my own favourite: “murky”. Soon I had over a thousand words, with more arriving constantly. And instead of just listing them – which I did and am doing – I started wondering about what makes a word a “favourite”. Would some emerge as popular favourites? Were there any patterns to our partisanship? Some people gave reasons for their choices – “I like words that sound like what they mean”, others just smsed me – “snood”, “wench” and “marzipan” arrived without comment, “kaleidoscope!” was sent exuberantly at 2am.

There may be a pleasure in speaking the words, in the way they look, they might be loved because of their peculiarities of spelling. There were words which sounded lovely even though they described not-so-lovely things – “lumbago”, “cadaver”, “desecration”,  “assegai”, “expletive”, “carbuncle”, “mausoleum”, “derelict”, “ricochet”, “minion”, “macabre”, “defenestrate”, “scatological”, “lachrymose”, “fetid”, “dastardly”, “vagabond”, “arsenic” “egregious”, “deleterious” and “bestiality”, for instance.  Insults, swearwords and slang came zooming at me, “cretin”, “shite”, “bastard”, “imbecile”, “wanker”, “ignoramus”, “cunt”, “jerk”, “cocktonsil”, “fuckknuckle”, “asshat”, and “fucksticks”.

Words evoking sex and love were popular too “voluptuous”, “sweetheart”, “sensual”, “boobs”, “cock”, “evocative”, “innuendo”, “gasp”, “snuggle”, “nuzzle”, “wanton”, “beloved”, “lathered”, “frisson”, “lover”, “swoon”, “nipple”, “quim”, “nuptials”, “brassiere”, “corset”, “erotic”, “arouse”, “cleavage”, “bosom”, desire”, “tumescent”, “shag”, “snog”, “orgasm”, “smitten”, “smooch”, “aphrodisiac”, “enamoured”, “cherish”, “honeymoon” and (I almost didn’t see it there) “clitoris”.

There was only a sprinkling of three letter words, but those that came were worthy contenders – “wry”, “pie”, “imp”, “say”, “sup”, “fie”, “icy”, “lob”, “kak”, “tad”, “meh”, “sly”, “vie”, “mom”, “yen”, “irk”, “gnu”, “apt”, “ass”, “zip”, “gem”, “fug”, “mob”, “yak”, “zap” and a resounding “yes” . Only three two-letter words have made the list so far, “qi” and “xi” suggested no doubt in gratitude by scrabble enthusiasts, and the warm fuzzy simple “us”, encapsulating so much in such a small word. Encapsulating nothing, our longest word was “floccinaucinihilipilification”.

Odd patterns emerged, like the scores of “sc” words, “scalding”, “scamp”, “scarce”, “scarlet”, “scarper”, “schedule”, “scheme”, “schism”, “schlepp”, “scimitar”, “scintillating”, “scooch”, “scotch”, “screech”, “scrimmage”, “scrumpy”, “scrupulous” and “scum”. Scissors didn’t make the cut. I got words which held meaning to the offerer – “journey”, “hope”, “yesterday”, “baby”, “serendipity”, “honour”.  Remarkably, “God” wasn’t a favourite with anyone.  There were suggestions of silly words that are fun to say – “poop”, “bamboozle”, “mollycoddle”, “blatherskites”, “flipflop”, “whoop”, “kerfuffle”, “skittles”, “oomph”, “clitsquiggle”, “wonky”, “squiff”, “fizzle”, “sausages”, “noggin”, “tickle”, “banana”, “moxie”, “nincompoop”, “cowabunga”, “gloop”.

I received words in many languages, “isithuthuthu”, “hoenderpoepholmond”, “bête noire”, “mojito”, “sgiomlaireachd”, “rhwe”, “backpfeifengesicht”. I got places – “Africa”, “Hawaii”, “Mississippi” and “Patagonia”; plants and animals – “rhododendron”, “kangaroo”, “chrysanthemum”, “coelacanth”, “jasmine”, “Labrador”, “magnolia”, “velociraptor”, “tadpole”, “peony” and “wallaby” (no rose by any name); foodie words – “marmalade”, “ice-cream”, “yeast”, “malt”, “ragout”, “gnocchi”, “chocolate”, “honey”, “cream”, “tureen”, “ladle”, “soup”, “tart”, “jambalaya” and “spud”; words about words – “tmesis”, “sarcasm”, “onomatopoeia”, “oxymoron”, “word”, “assonance”, “apostrophe” and “ellipses”. And words I don’t dare confine – “whimsy”, “plethora”, “ubiquitous”, “magnanimous”, “tesseract”, “vivacious”, “womble”, “tinsel”, “zhuzh”, “somnambulant”, “saturnalia”, “zombie”, “klingon”, “paraphernalia”, “smidgen”, “hallelujah”, and “quixotic”.

It astonished me how diverse people’s favourites were. Of the 1643 currently on my list, nearly 1400 are unique. But slowly, patterns began to emerge, and favourite favourites started to pull ahead of the pack. And now I feel I can safely say I have a top fifteen. And a very very clear winner. Counting down:

15: dirndl

14: prattle

13: unicorn

12: ecstasy

11: susurrate

10: anathema

9: nimble

8: whisper

7: jelly

6: zest

5: rhapsody

4: labyrinth

3: liaison

2: yes

And the winner, not even counting all the numerous variations on it I received…

1: fuck

As the ”collection” “elongated” I kept “yearning” to “pause”, to “savour” the words, to “murmur”, to “chortle”, to “sigh” with “delight” over “solipsism” and “pungent”, and I thought: why not “celebrate” these words? This article “ensconces” just a “smattering” of them…

…And so this category was born, dwelling on one favourite word a week, to take us from “aardvark” to “zulu”, dawdling along the way. I do hope you enjoy the ride as much as I do.

Here we go: A is for Aardvark

Karen Jeynes

About Karen Jeynes

Karen Jeynes (@karenjeynes) is a playwright, dramaturg, wordsmith, proponent of the Oxford comma, and collector of words. She has been known to rub her hands with girlish glee on discovering a new one. She experiences high levels of angst over misplaced apostrophes, sometimes having to have a bit of a lie down. She is perilously partial to puns. And also alliteration.

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21 Responses to “Twelve Thousand Words”

  1. Lovely. I finished reading this with a huge smile on my face.

  2. I didn’t send you mine, Karen. I love “dwaal”. And “skabenga”.

    Do you have a list of words that people mis-pronounced in their heads as children? I think it might comfort me to know I am not alone. Those of us who, as children, read more than we interacted with real people, had no way of knowing that “awry” is not pronounced “or-ree”, or that “wan” doesn’t rhyme with “fan”.

    • Oh but I still pronounce awry like that in my head! Was talking to a friend about this the other day and he reminded me of the joy of mispronouncing misled.

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