Ogden Gnash

by Chris Hancock

Retiring to bed one evening, I decided to fire up the laptop and embark on a little random web-surfing. A few Google searches later, I found myself alighting on the Wikipedia page of one Charles Kay Ogden. Ogden lived from 1889 to 1957 and was described as an eccentric polymath. His chief claim to fame was the invention and development of “Basic English”. My interest was now piqued. What was this Basic English? A sentence gave the central thrust:

 If one were to take the 25,000 word Oxford Pocket English Dictionary and take away the redundancies of our rich language and eliminate the words that can be made by putting together simpler words, we find that 90% of the concepts in that dictionary can be achieved with 850 words.

Hmm… “redundancies”? As a fully paid-up member of the wordnerds’ union, I wasn’t going to accept this lightly.

Let’s take a look at the 850 words. 600 of them are “things” – Ogden’s term for nouns. Here they are:

account, act, addition, adjustment, advertisement, agreement, air, amount, amusement, angle, animal, answer, ant, apparatus, apple, approval, arch, argument, arm, army, art, attack, attempt, attention, attraction, authority, baby, back, bag, balance, ball, band, base, basin, basket, bath, bed, bee, behaviour, belief, bell, berry, bird, birth, bit, bite, blade, blood, blow, board, boat, body, bone, book, boot, bottle, box, boy, brain, brake, branch, brass, bread, breath, brick, bridge, brother, brush, bucket, building, bulb, burn, burst, business, butter, button, cake, camera, canvas, card, care, carriage, cart, cat, cause, chain, chalk, chance, change, cheese, chest, chin, church, circle, clock, cloth, cloud, coal, coat, collar, colour, comb, comfort, committee, company, comparison, competition, condition, connection, control, cook, copper, copy, cord, cork, cotton, cough, country, cover, cow, crack, credit, crime, crush, cry, cup, current, curtain, curve, cushion, damage, danger, daughter, day, death, debt, decision, degree, design, desire, destruction, detail, development, digestion, direction, discovery, discussion, disease, disgust, distance, distribution, division, dog, door, doubt, drain, drawer, dress, drink, driving, drop, dust, ear, earth, edge, education, effect, egg, end, engine, error, event, example, exchange, existence, expansion, experience, expert, eye, face, fact, fall, family, farm, father, fear, feather, feeling, fiction, field, fight, finger, fire, fish, flag, flame, flight, floor, flower, fly, fold, food, foot, force, fork, form, fowl, frame, friend, front, fruit, garden, girl, glass, glove, goat, gold, government, grain, grass, grip, group, growth, guide, gun, hair, hammer, hand, harbour, harmony, hat, hate, head, hearing, heart, heat, help, history, hole, hook, hope, horn, horse, hospital, hour, house, humour, ice, idea, impulse, increase, industry, ink, insect, instrument, insurance, interest, invention, iron, island, jelly, jewel, join, journey, judge, jump, kettle, key, kick, kiss, knee, knife, knot, knowledge, land, language, laugh, law, lead, leaf, learning, leather, leg, letter, level, library, lift, light, limit, line, linen, lip, liquid, list, lock, look, loss, love, machine, man, manager, map, mark, market, mass, match, meal, measure, meat, meeting, memory, metal, middle, milk, mind, mine, minute, mist, money, monkey, month, moon, morning, mother, motion, mountain, mouth, move, muscle, music, nail, name, nation, neck, need, needle, nerve, net, news, night, noise, nose, note, number, nut, observation, offer, office, oil, operation, opinion, orange, order, organisation, ornament, oven, owner, page, pain, paint, paper, parcel, part, paste, payment, peace, pen, pencil, person, picture, pig, pin, pipe, place, plane, plant, plate, play, pleasure, plough, pocket, point, poison, polish, porter, position, pot, potato, powder, power, price, print, prison, process, produce, profit, property, prose, protest, pull, pump, punishment, purpose, push, quality, question, rail, rain, range, rat, rate, ray, reaction, reading, reason, receipt, record, regret, relation, religion, representative, request, respect, rest, reward, rhythm, rice, ring, river, road, rod, roll, roof, room, root, rub, rule, run, sail, salt, sand, scale, school, science, scissors, screw, sea, seat, secretary, seed, selection, self, sense, servant, sex, shade, shake, shame, sheep, shelf, ship, shirt, shock, shoe, side, sign, silk, silver, sister, size, skin, skirt, sky, sleep, slip, slope, smash, smell, smile, smoke, snake, sneeze, snow, soap, society, sock, son, song, sort, sound, soup, space, spade, sponge, spoon, spring, square, stage, stamp, star, start, statement, station, steam, steel, stem, step, stick, stitch, stocking, stomach, stone, stop, store, story, street, stretch, structure, substance, sugar, suggestion, summer, sun, support, surprise, swim, system, table, tail, talk, taste, tax, teaching, tendency, test, theory, thing, thought, thread, throat, thumb, thunder, ticket, time, tin, toe, tongue, tooth, top, touch, town, trade, train, transport, tray, tree, trick, trouble, trousers, turn, twist, umbrella, unit, use, value, verse, vessel, view, voice, walk, wall, war, wash, waste, watch, water, wave, wax, way, weather, week, weight, wheel, whip, whistle, wind, window, wine, wing, winter, wire, woman, wood, wool, word, work, worm, wound, writing, year.

Ogden called adjectives “qualities”. He reckons we can manage with just 150:

able, acid, angry, automatic, awake, bad, beautiful, bent, bitter, black, blue, boiling, bright, broken, brown, certain, cheap, chemical, chief, clean, clear, cold, common, complete, complex, conscious, cruel, cut, dark, dead, dear, deep, delicate, dependent, different, dirty, dry, early, elastic, electric, equal, false, fat, feeble, female, fertile, first, fixed, flat, foolish, free, frequent, full, future, general, good, great, green, grey, hanging, happy, hard, healthy, high, hollow, ill, important, kind, last, late, left, like, living, long, loose, loud, low, male, married, material, medical, military, mixed, narrow, natural, necessary, new, normal, old, open, opposite, parallel, past, physical, political, poor, possible, present, private, probable, public, quick, quiet, ready, red, regular, responsible, right, rough, round, sad, safe, same, second, secret, separate, serious, sharp, short, shut, simple, slow, small, smooth, soft, solid, special, sticky, stiff, straight, strange, strong, sudden, sweet, tall, thick, thin, tight, tired, true, violent, waiting, warm, wet, white, wide, wise, wrong, yellow, young.

That leaves 100 other assorted words (pronouns, verbs, conjunctions, prepositions) making up the 850. Ogden called these “objects”:

a, about, across, after, again, against, all, almost, among, and, any, as, at, be, because, before, between, but, by, come, do, down, east, enough, even, ever, every, far, for, forward, from, get, give, go, have, he, here, how, I, if, in, keep, let, little, make, may, much, near, no, north, not, now, of, off, on, only, or, other, out, over, please, put, quite, say, see, seem, send, so, some, south, still, such, take, than, that, the, then, there, this, though, through, till, to, together, tomorrow, under, up, very, well, west, when, where, while, who, why, will, with, yes, yesterday, you.

The only words in the list that are recognisable as verbs are “be”, “come”, “do”, “get”, “give”, “go”, “have”, “keep”, “let”, “make”, “put”, “say”, “see”, “seem”, “send” and “take”. Other verbs are formed from “things” by adding the suffixes -ed or -ing. For example, the noun “attempt” becomes the verbs “attempted” or “attempting”.

Adverbs can be formed by adding -ly to many of the qualities: “beautifully”, “brightly”, etc.

If a word isn’t on the list, you just have to define it using words that are. So, “hum” would be “song under the breath” or “noise made on one note”.

I had the distinct feeling that Ogden and I wouldn’t have got on. The more I read, the more I felt my teeth gnashing, my hackles rising… but my eyelids drooping. Soon I was falling into a deep sleep…

Suddenly, I sensed a presence in the bedroom and sat bolt upright. Someone was there. In the semi-darkness, a wizened bespectacled figure stood before me.

“Wh-Who are you?” I exclaimed.

“Charles Ogden,” came the reply.

I recoiled in horror. “Charles Ogden – the sworn enemy of the wordnerd?”

“The same”.

“What are you doing here?”, I asked. His reply left me momentarily baffled:

“I came back from the other side of the place in the earth where a dead body is put”.

“Eh?” Then the penny dropped. He only spoke in his Basic English. “Ahh… you mean from ‘beyond the grave’”.

“As you desire”.

He turned to my bookshelves, removed my beloved Chambers Dictionary, and handed it to me, his eyes flickering gleefully.

“You’re in my land now. Let me put this on view to you. Look inside.”

I did so, and what met my eyes filled me with dread. “A” was followed by “able”, then “about” and “account”. I flicked through to the end – “you” and finally “young”. The dictionary contained a mere 850 entries.

home alone face

“But… but… where are the rest of the words?”

A smirk played upon his thin spittle-flecked lips.

“We do not use them here. All can be said using those 850 words”.

“No, no! I won’t have it. Every one of the thousands and thousands of words has its unique subtlety and colour of meaning. What about words like ‘hubris’?”

“Acting as if others are not important”.

“Idealism?”

“Guided by one’s ideas of best”.

“Amok?”

“Going about with violence in mind”.

To every word I threw at him, he was able to come back with a response. A horrible flat definition, lacking all the nuance of the original word. I summoned up all my remaining strength.

“Panoply?”

Ogden’s swagger gave way to a look of anxiety.

“Erm…” He seemed to shrink before me.

“Venal?”

“Erm…” He was shrinking, visibly. I seized my chance.

“Adamantine? Grandiloquence? Quondam? Zhuzh?”

With each word, Ogden became smaller and smaller until he disappeared altogether.

I sat up, blinking at the morning light coming through the curtains. I silenced the alarm clock and scanned the room. Ogden was indeed gone. Leaping out of bed, I raced to my bookshelves and pulled out my Chambers. There they were – not 850 words, but all my 600,000 friends. I flicked through the pages to find particular favourites, just for the pleasure of seeing them in print, from “augury” and “bamboozle” to “yokel” and “zeugma”.

It had all been what Ogden would have called a “sleep experience” – to you and me… just a “dream”.

Chris Hancock

About Chris Hancock

Chris Hancock (@cjhancock) is an IT consultant and dictionary enthusiast in the UK. He’s worked in Engineering and Computing since leaving University, all the time hoping that the post of Crossword Editor for “The Guardian” will come up. It hasn’t. Yet.

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84 Comments to “Ogden Gnash”

  1. I’m not easily spooked, but that really is a terrifying tale! I might go hug my dictionary now.

  2. If it’d been me, I’d have clobbered him over the head with the dictionary!

  3. What a delightful diversion.

  4. Good grief, I shall have nightmares now! 850 words!!!

  5. You know a dictionary is too short when you can put it in its entirety in an article.

  6. So the other ten percent are what? Useless? Or just ‘different’. Society loves destroying the different…

  7. Ooooooooooh. You should record this Chris, so we can listen to it late at night before we go to sleep…

  8. I googled him. It’s true. What a horror story :-(

  9. While I appreciate your humorous rendering and passion for lexicographical matters, I’m sure he was driven by noble intentions. Our language is a complex one for non-native speakers to master.

    • Hi Geoffrey! I’m particularly glad to see your comment. For a bit of Hallowe’en fun I have cast Ogden as a wordnerd hate figure so I’m happy to put on record that he was indeed a well-intentioned man whose methods for teaching English as a second language are still used around the world today. If people learn English through Ogden and go on to discover its riches, I’m delighted.

      • Don’t underestimate second language speakers, Geoffrey. We too want to be amused and entertained, and making the language dull doesn’t make it easier.

  10. Oh you poor man, what a gruesome encounter!

  11. I’ve always loved Halloween, but even more so when it features the lovely Chris Hancock!

  12. I have the heeby jeebies now.

  13. Chris, absolutely delightful! Just brilliant. Thanks! : )
    (none of those on Chucky’s list)

  14. And all perfectly chosen, Penelope. Heh! Thanks :-)

  15. I love your weapons of choice! Each deadlier than the last.

  16. Actually, quite a thought provoking piece. But I’ll always be on your side.

  17. Your title is EVERYTHING. Everything.

  18. Exactly what my Halloween needed!

  19. I think we shouild all lock up our dictionaries tonight, just to be safe.,,

  20. Your imagination is truly a wonder!

  21. Of COURSE you won the battle, you have an army behind you!

  22. I gnashed my teeth in sympathy!

  23. Sppoktacular!

  24. I can picture this all so clearly, your writing is so evocative.

  25. Love it!!! Your words are perfect as always!

  26. You’ve given us the best treat of all.

  27. Ghosts of wordnerds past! Or anti-wordnerds…

  28. *stands and applauds*

  29. Wonder if I have time to make an Ogden costume by tomorrow night…

  30. Another Hancock smash hit!!

  31. I suppose it all depends how you approach language. Clinically and for basic communication, or joyously for real connection and inspiration. Like those Plain Language people. Fine for business, tragic for poetry. I’m glad you approach it joyously!

  32. Glorious, terrifying, and wonderful!

  33. I too did the Home Alone scream at the thought of this!

  34. A frightsome thing indeed, thanks for the laugh.

  35. Simply grand!

  36. Best. Ever.

  37. Wow, I’ve only just found you guys and wow. So amazeballs.

  38. Read this to my students and had a great discussion about horror and parody. And of course had to get ’em to look up your words! Wonderful, thank you.

  39. You must write a book for us. Please.

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