A meander through the trivial curiosities of language

Adrian Arnold
13 min readFeb 4, 2020

Language is a type of communication but that type takes many different forms. Koko, the gorilla, had a vocabulary of 1000 words, that of a three year old child, whereas someone who considers themselves to be fluent in any particular language should have access to about 10,000 words. Not all language, meaning communication, uses words. Perfect examples of this are the various world sign languages and, often more expressive, is body language. Words spoken on the phone can convey a very different meaning to that of the same words spoken face-to-face with subconscious body language.

Currently, about 7,000 languages are spoken around the world. They belong to different language families and their origins date back thousands of years ago. Researchers are still finding it difficult to determine which language is the oldest. However, the earliest written languages on record are the cuneiform script that was discovered in Mesopotamia that dates back to 8th millennium BC. The Sumerian script that started in the 3rd millennium BC was developed for funerary inscriptions because the Sumerians were somewhat obsessed by their afterlife — a concept shared by many other civilisations such as the Egyptians under the pharaohs.

For a long time, humans used primitive sounds and gestures as their means of communication. Structured languages were seen in scriptures that were written about 10,000 years ago. Linguists say that a language’s age should be determined by the first time it appeared in texts and its use in the present.

For example, the Korean language is considered as one of the oldest living languages in the world. It is a language that came from Proto-Korean and Old Korean. It developed further into Middle Korean to Modern Korean. The Old Korean was used during the period of the Three Kingdoms during which time China already had an influence on Korean and samples of Old Korean text used Chinese characters that were adopted to the existing Korean language at that time, making it difficult to decipher.

But enough of ancient history what of today? The largest language?
The number of words in a given language is difficult to evaluate. Take the English language, thought by many to contain the largest number of words. Do we count “run”, “runs” and “ran” as three separate words? Another problem is multiple meanings. Do we count “run” the verb and “run” the noun as one word or two? What about “run” as in the long run of a play on Broadway or the cross-country run? When counting a languages words do we count compounds? Is “every day” one word or two? Are the names of new chemical compounds to be considered as words?
Some languages inflect much more than English. The Spanish verb has dozens of forms — estoy, eastas, estam “I am”,”You are”, “He is” and so on. Does this make Spanish richer in word count?

Some languages inflect far less. For instance, Chinese is ending-free, so whether we count inflected forms will have an enormous influence on the final counts. Then there are the phonic languages found in the far East. The phonetic Thai language allows the letter”a” to be pronounced in so many different ways that a long, complete sentence can be constructed simply using the different phonetics of the letter.

On the other hand, many languages regularly build long words from shorter ones. German is an obvious example when they coin a new compound word for a new situation. So, is unaghängigkeitserklärung — declaration of independence — one word? These possibilities would quickly outstrip the English language count.

Other languages are more economical with their vocabularies such as Turkish which not only crams words together but does so in ways that make whole, meaningful sentences. “Were you one of those people we could not make into a Czechoslovak?” translates as one word in Turkish. You write it without spaces, pronounce it in one breath in speaking and it cannot be interrupted by digressions.

Let us give Wikipedia the last word on this unanswerable question — which says it’s possible to count the number of entries in a dictionary, but it’s not possible to count the number of words in a language.

Study the following table —

Language — Words in the national dictionary
Korean — 1,100,373
Japanese — 500,000
Italian — 260,000
English — 171,476
Russian — 150,000
Spanish — 93,000
Chinese — 85,568

The largest languages may be difficult to pin down while the smallest are a little easier. The tongue with the least number of words that I have been able to find is Toki Pona, a language of only 123 words created by Sonja Lang, the Canadian linguist and translator. It is believed that there are a few thousand practitioners living a different parts of the world as diverse as New Zealand, Belgium, Argentina and Japan. Esperanto is another similarly constructed language which uses more than 3000 words.

Finally we must consider not only the number of words in a language but the estimated number of people who use that language. Top of the list is Chinese Mandarin (1.1 billion) with English (983 million) coming second. Spanish (460 million) comes in at number four after Hindustani but Arabic, Malay, Russian, Bengali and Portuguese have more native speakers than French (202 million), German (76 million) and Italian (65 million).

But let us get back to a few English words and their possible interpretations not forgetting that words have changed their meanings over the centuries. For example, the word fathom. It can be hard to fathom how this verb moved from meaning “to encircle with one’s arms” to meaning “to understand after much thought.” Here’s the clue. One’s outstretched arms can be used as a measurement (a fathom), and once you have fathoms, you can use a fathom line to measure the depth of water. Think metaphorically and fathoming becomes about getting to the bottom of things.
While speaking of clues, centuries ago, a clue (or clew) was a ball of yarn. Think about threading your way through a maze and you’ll see how we got from yarn to key bits of evidence that help us solve things.
What do you imply using the word myriad? If you had a myriad of things 600 years ago, it meant that you had exactly 10,000 of them — not just a lot. And, long ago, if you were naughty, you had naught or nothing. Then it came to mean evil or immoral, and now you are just badly behaved.

English is a difficult language to learn and even harder to understand. It is a mongrel language. There are many reasons for this, not least the multitude of origins of commonly used English words. Early English descended from a West Germanic language that originated from Anglo-Frisian dialects brought to Britain in the 5th century by the Anglo-Saxons. This was supplemented after the Norman invasion in 1066 by Anglo-Norman when the language of the court was Norman French while the Renaissance era brought imports from the French, German and Dutch resulting in the basic form of Modern English which was established in the 17th century and has developed ever since.
Linguistically, we are a magpie race picking up words from our European neighbours such as rendez-vous, entrepreneur, delicatessen, waltz and rucksack; from the old British Empire — bungalow, doolally, dungarees, kedgeree and khaki — and from across the globe. These words are known as loanwords which have been calculated to make up 80% of today’s English language.
Ranking from most influential to least, English is composed of words from: Latin, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Scandinavian, Japanese, Arabic, Portuguese, Sanskrit, Russian, Maori, Hindi, Hebrew, Persian, Malay, Urdu, Irish, Afrikaans, Yiddish, Chinese, Turkish, Norwegian, Zulu, and Swahili. And, that’s not even 10% of the 350 languages in the English melting pot.
We cannot ignore the ‘invented’ words created by our literary heritage. John Milton probably added the most ‘new’ words to the English vocabulary closely followed by Geoffrey Chaucer, Ben Jonson, John Donne, Sir Thomas Moore and Shakespeare not far behind. Debates have raged for centuries as to Shakespeare’s contribution to the language with some authorities quoting 1700 words ‘invented’ by The Bard when, in fact, he often simply popularized words that had been known for centuries before. George Bernard Shaw created a wonderful word to describe the fascination that holds many Shakespearean scholars in its thrall — bardolatry!

We have only begun to touch upon the subject until we have considered the portmanteau words that have crept into the English way of life. Many of these are so familiar that we do not recognise them as portmanteau in origin while others are so obvious hybrid in origin that it goes without saying. Words like vodkatini, alcopop, newscast, Brexit,and docudrama are obvious examples but consider the following — camcorder (camera and recorder), cellophane (cellulose and diaphane), neither (not and either), never (not and ever), intercom (internal and communication) and motel (motor and hotel). We would not immediately consider them to be portmanteau words.

Words change meaning over time in ways that might surprise you. We sometimes notice words changing meaning under our noses (e.g., unique coming to mean “very unusual” rather than “one of a kind” and decimate does not mean obliteration but one in ten.) — and it can be disconcerting. How in the world are we all going to communicate effectively if we allow words to shift in meaning like that?

The good news: History tells us that we’ll be fine. Words have been changing meaning — sometimes radically — as long as there have been words and speakers to speak them. Here is just a small sampling of words you may not have realized didn’t always mean what they mean today.
Nice: This word used to mean “silly, foolish, simple.” Far from the compliment it is today!
Silly: Meanwhile, silly went in the opposite direction: in its earliest uses, it referred to things worthy or blessed; from there it came to refer to the weak and vulnerable, and more recently to those who are foolish.
Awful: Awful things used to be “worthy of awe” for a variety of reasons, which is how we get expressions like “the awful majesty of God.”
Wench: A shortened form of the Old English word wenchel (which referred to children of either sex), the word wench used to mean “female child” before it came to be used to refer to female servants — and more pejoratively to wanton women.
Eerie: Before the word eerie described things that inspire fear, it used to describe people feeling fear — as in one could feel faint and eerie.
Spinster: As it sounds, spinsters used to be women who spun. It referred to a legal occupation before it came to mean “unmarried woman” — and often not in the most positive ways, as opposed to a bachelor.
Bachelor: A bachelor was a young knight before the word came to refer to someone who had achieved the lowest rank at a university — and it lives on in that meaning in today’s B.A. and B.S degrees. It has been used to describe unmarried men since Chaucer’s day.
Flirt: Some 500 years ago, flirting was flicking something away or flicking open a fan or otherwise making a brisk or jerky motion. Now it involves playing with people’s emotions (sometimes it may feel like your heart is getting jerked around in the process).
Hussy: Believe it or not, hussy comes from the word housewife (with several sound changes, clearly) and used to refer to the mistress of a household, not the disreputable woman it refers to today.
Quell: Quelling something or someone used to mean killing it, not just subduing it.
Divest: 300 years ago, divesting could involve undressing as well as depriving others of their rights or possessions. It has only recently come to refer to selling off investments.
Senile: Senile used to refer simply to anything related to old age, so you could have senile maturity. Now it refers specifically to those suffering, as in senile dementia.
Meat: Have you ever wondered about the expression “meat and drink”? It comes from an older meaning of the word meat that refers to food in general — solid food of a variety of kinds (not just animal flesh), as opposed to drink.

I apologise if I have bored you to distraction but, if you have been stimulated, allow me to challenge you a little further by asking a few questions.

What is a brevet?
The possible answers:
1. It is a symbol placed above or below a letter to change its sound or meaning. Examples would include the French accents, acute (é), grave (è) and circumflex (ê). The brevet is a similar symbol, or diacritic, similar to the German umlaut or English dieresis, being two small dots placed above the vowel. It denotes that the vowel should be pronounced separately from the vowel immediately previous as in the French word for Christmas — Noël. It can be used in English words such as Zoë and some English style guide even suggest that it might be used in words such as reëlect or coöperate but, in practice, writers rarely follow the rule.
2. A brevet is a promotion granted by the Army, not the soldier’s regiment, giving a commissioned officer a higher rank title as a reward for gallantry or meritorious conduct but without conferring the authority, precedence, or pay of real rank. Such an honoured major would become a brevet-major.
3. The brevet is a symbol of musical notation being shorter to the more familiar breve which is classified as a double whole note while the brevet is a whole note, 2 minims or four crotchets. This seems strange as the English translation of the word ‘breve’ is ‘short’ so why should a breve be a long note or pause?

The correct answer:
There is such an accent placed above a letter in both French and English but it is called a trema — not a brevet. The Germans have the same accent which is known as an umlaut.
There is no musical interval of a brevet so the correct answer is the officer. It doesn’t seem fair that he gets a promotion without any benefit whatsoever.

What is a cynologist?
Possible answers:
1. A cynologist is one who studies seabed steam outlets, known as hydrothermal vents, and their environment. They are most commonly found at depths of 2500 to 300 metres below sea level. In contrast to the approximately 2 °C (36 °F) ambient water temperature at these depths, water emerges from these vents at temperatures ranging from 60 °C (140 °F)[5] up to as high as 464 °C (867 °F). In spite of these extreme conditions the vents are home to a large variety of life forms from bacteria, tube-worms, snails, grabs and octopuses.
2. Cynology is the study of matters related to canines or domestic dogs. In English it may be a term sometimes used to denote serious zoological approach to the study of dogs as well as by writers on canine subjects, dog breeders and trainers and enthusiasts who informally study the dog. One who studies dogs is therefore a cynologist.
3. Meteorologists study the atmosphere and its phenomena and especially the weather and weather forecasting. The earth’s atmosphere consists of five main layers — the troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere, thermosphere and exosphere. A cynologist could be described as a specialist meteorologist as he studies the stratosphere. This layer extends from the top of the troposphere at roughly 7.5 miles (39,000 ft) above Earth’s surface to the stratopause at an altitude of about 31 to 34 miles (164,000 to 180,000 ft). It is in this area that the ozone is concentrated and it absorbe much of the ultraviolet radiation from the sun.

The correct answer:
Forget the highs and lows — namely the hydrothermal vents and the stratosphere. Those suggested answers are complete fabrication. Cynology is simply the study of dogs. The local dog trainer can call themselves a cynologist. In spite of extensive research I am unable to find an academic institution that teaches cynology. To complete the answer a philocynic is a dog lover. The world is pretty much divided into philocynics and ailurophiles, the cat lovers.

What is not a tierce from the following suggestions?
There are so many different definitions of tierce in the English language. Therefore this article’s question is not which is the correct answer but which are the two incorrect answers.
The Suggested Answers:
1. A tierce is barrel measure of ale or beer amounting to one sixth of a tun or half a puncheon containing 51 Imperial gallons.
2. Tierce is a fencing term derived from Old French. Many fencing terms derive from the French language such as école, épée , coule and manchette. A parry is a defensive stroke to counter an opponent’s thrust.
There are eight parries in the classical systems of épée and foil. The parries are numbered from one to eight, with the numbers often referred to by the old French terms: prime, seconde, tierce, quarte, quinte, sixte, septième, octave.
3. Canonical or monastic ‘hours’ are periods of prayer, praise and contemplation. Tierce is the third major hour held at noon. It comes after Prime and is followed by the minor hours Sext and Nones. The last major hour is Evensong or Vespers.
4. In heraldry a tierce is a French term for a shield tierced, divided, or ingrafted into three areas. These partitions, by piercing the field, are not used by English heralds.
5. The old name for a male peregrine was a tierce, which comes from the Latin tertius meaning a third because male birds are around a third smaller than females. This is particularly noticeable when you see a pair side-by-side but not always helpful if you see a single bird since the peregrine is a large bird anyway. This difference in size between male and female birds, with females being larger, is common in birds of prey but is especially obvious in peregrines. This is often seen amongst birds of prey and is called sexual dimorphism.
6. An organ stop sounding two octaves and a major third above the pitch of the diapason.
7. A sequence of three cards in the same suit in the old card game of Piquet. A tierce major consists of Ace, King and Queen and a tierce minor holds King, Queen and Jack.
8. In music, a tierce is the third tone of the scale. Along with the minor third, the major third is one of two commonly occurring thirds. It is qualified as major because it is the larger of the two: the major third spans four semitones, the minor third, three.

The wrong answers:
The first incorrect answer is the canonical hour or tierce. It does exist but it is not a major hour but a minor one held at about 9.00am. The major hours are Mattins, Lauds and Vespers.
The other incorrect answer is the bird. Everything about the peregrine is correct except that the male bird is known as a tiercel, not a tierce.

To coin a phrase, trivia can be the spice of life or the irritation of a flea bite. I hope this article has added to the first defintion.



Adrian Arnold

Retired veterinary surgeon now a collector of trivia. Married to a wonderful wife, four children and four grandchildren. Author of A Veterinary Life on Amazon.