VOCABULARY TEST: Something to ease your onomatomania
SOME years ago, a friend who was involved in a company that made shoelaces asked me if there was a word for the metal or plastic sheath at the end. I found out that an anglet or aiglet keeps the fibres of shoelaces in place and allows you to push the shoelace through the eyelets in your shoes. I was surprised to note that the word "anglet" is similar to a commune and the name of a town in southwestern France.
If there is a name for the sharp end of your elbow (siku in Malay, noop in English), there is a name for everything. I grew up in Muar, unique for its mee bandung, asam pedas, Kopi 434 and 100-year-old flag. Muarians have their own names and terms for almost everything -- sangai for food cover, katil for bed, berkinyo for something shining like clothes and gobok for cupboard. I am sure every district has its own peculiar words.
So, it is understandable that the Eskimos have at least 50 words for snow, the Arabs have 6,000 words to explain camels, Italians have 500 names for macaroni and the French have more than 300 names for cheese. Albanians must be crazy over eyebrows, or perhaps it has something to do with status or character -- they have 27 words for it!
According to the Global Language Monitor, which follows every word used, the English language breached the one-million-word mark in April 2008. How many English words do you know?
Even Shakespeare, the best known user and coiner of words was equipped with "only" a 27,870-word vocabulary. A million is 35 times that.
I believe we take our dictionaries for granted. At best we have about 10,000 words to prepare us for our communication skills in any language. Henri Bejoint in Tradition and Innovation in Modern English Dictionaries was right in arguing "the dictionary is never consulted in its entirety."
How many people have read the entire Oxford English Dictionary (OED) -- all 1,827,306 citations described in 15,487 pages of text? (Perhaps Ammon Shea, we will come to him later.) Or the Kamus Dewan, which consists of 25, 000 root words ?
A.J. Jacobs read the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica and lived to tell the tale, all 32 volumes of the 2002 version of the 15th edition, extending to more than 35,000 pages in 44 million words. He wrote a book about it, The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World.
Words fascinate me. So, I find it enlightening and amusing as well when I came across I Never Knew There Was a Word for It by Adam Jacot de Boinod and Satisdiction by Ammon Shea.
De Boinod combined all his three previous books into a volume with additional entries. As a self-confessed bowerbird (one who collects an astonishing array of sometimes useless objects) he has a unique way of helping you from mulligrubs (depression of spirits) and onomatomania (the phobia of not finding the right words). Those are words seldom used today.
Just think of anything, anything at all, and presto, you have a word for it in any language.
A Japanese word for a woman who is more attractive from the back? The sound of animals in various languages? The odour of semen?
He does not confine his search to just words in English, but in other languages too, including Bahasa Malaysia and Bahasa Indonesia.
He erred on some points though, he confused jongos (one with protruding teeth) with merongos (grumpy) and kretek (the cigarette) with kersek (the sound of rustling or snapping of dry leaves).
Insang (not engsang) is not blowing the nose in colloquial Malay but fish gills. Congak and dongak are two different things, one the act of calculating and the other, raising the head. He was right about jegil though (eyes wide open).
Yes, there is a word "satisdiction" in English (in the OED no less), thus the title of Shea's book. He claims to have read dictionaries for the last 20 years. His book is about "one man's journey into all the words he'll ever need'.
He introduces us to words like exordium (introduction), artolater (the worshipper of bread, yes, no kidding!) and aerumnous (full of trouble, a word that has far more gravitas than irksome).
Very few people have heard of "leese", probably the best description of "to be a loser" in English. What about those long or boring passages of writing? (Longueur.) Now, let's not be a mafflard or a stuttering or blundering fool. Check this one -- uxoriousness is undue affection for one's wife but maritality is excessive or undue affection on the part of a wife for her husband.
So, enjoy these newly-found words in the books. No, let's not be a pejorist (one who believes the world is getting worse), an even worse form of a pessimist, a sarcast or a pseud. These words will light up your life.
JOHAN JAAFFAR firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: @Johan_Jaaffar New Straits Times Online Columnist 08 September 2012