Saturday, December 04, 2010

The Gift of Saving

Especially at this time of year, we're all reminded of the need to be generous. In that light, what better idea than to find something or someone which needs help, and offer then a little support? There are a myriad of organizations and causes out there, each of which requires just a small commitment from you to make a difference. You generally pledge a certain sum and moral support, and most importantly, your attention to the issue at hand. The object in question gets the help it needs, and you can feel like you've done good.

The laundry list of potential needs is almost endless: type "adopt a" into Google and you get over 27 million hits. If you're serious about it there are children and pets aplenty. But if you want to make a less demanding emotional commitment, you can also take under your wing a library or a stretch of highway, a wild horse or a river. And while the dollars you offer up can certainly make a difference, it's as much about awareness as anything else. For if you know about it and talk about, it's less likely to get lost in the shuffle and be forgotten. And that is certainly the case for Save the Words.

A project of the Oxford University Press, Save the Words is aimed at doing just that: savings words which heretofore have been a part of regular speech but have fallen on hard times (actually, like "heretofore"). And there are a lot of candidates. The Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for over 600,000 words, while its online cousin grows by 1800 new and revised words a quarter. Recent additions have included "vuvuzela," those plastic horns that all but overshadowed the World Cup, "bromance," defined as a close but non-sexual relationship between two men, and those darlings of economic policy "quantitative easing," "overleveraged" and "toxic debt."

Of course, the bigger the list gets, the less we use. Or more to the point, we squeeze out the old ones and assimilate the new ones. Just how many of the inhabitants of those pages get aired out regularly? While it's hard to give any precise figures, researchers say that a five year old just beginning school will have a vocabulary of around 4000 to 5000 word families, while a university graduate will have a vocabulary of around 20,000 word families. And any person in a technical field is likely to have an even bigger mouthful: for instance, it's estimated that medical school graduates have 30,000 words on the tip of their tongues, even if they struggle to remember that "gastralgia" is just another way of saying stomach ache.

That means even with doctors and lawyers talking non-stop, there's only so much that gets said. And that leaves an awful lot of orphans deep in the pages that don't get to see the light of day. Hence the Save the Words campaign.  A very clever website, it presents a collage of obsolete and archaic words which are gradually drifting into oblivion. When you peruse the site the potential adoptees call out to you (a cute feature at first which you can thankfully turn off), asking you to pick them. When you select a candidate, you are presented with a definition, a sample sentence and the chance to sign a pledge to use the word frequently in correspondence and conversation, thereby bringing it back from the lip of extinction. No subtraction from your wallet needed, just addition to your everyday vocabulary.

There are plenty from which to choose. Of course, like any grouping of orphans, some are cute and cuddly, while others are a little rougher around the edges. In both cases, however, there's a good chance that they have never graced your everyday speech. There's "senticous," a word from the 1600's meaning prickly or thorny. Or how about "obarnate," another term from the Middle Ages meaning to arm yourself against a foe. "Quaeritate" means to ask, while "ossifragant" means bone-breaking. And next time you bang your head on something, you can note that rather than being somewhat tender the resulting goose egg is "tenellous."

The trick, of course, is putting it into action. So tomorrow morning call your friend and profess your lubency to vicambulate. Then, before they call the cops, make sure they know aren't offering to do anything immoral, just professing your willingness to take a walk. And consider yourself a dutiful foster mamma or papa, and be satisfied that you have done your language proud.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves words, even those he doesn't use. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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