The Growth of Vocabulary

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This is the tenth and last part of Guruji’s summary of F.T. Wood’s book on the English Language.

  1. The Nature and Origin of Language
  2. The Indo-European Family
  3. The Germanic Sub-group
  4. Grimm’s Law
  5. Verner’s Law
  6. The Great Vowel Shift
  7. A Survey of Developments during the Middle English Period
  8. The Evolution of Standard English
  9. Change in Meaning
  10. Growth of Vocabulary

The Growth of Vocabulary

Of all the languages employed by the community of men around the world, today, the English language has the most extensive vocabulary. This is partly due to historical factors and partly due to “the genius of the language” and its readinesses to absorb words from foreign tongues or to make new where the existing term are not adequate.  New words have come into the English language and the vocabulary has been enlarged in a number of ways.  The following are the chief of them:

1. By imitation or Onomatopoeia:  This is perhaps one of the oldest, if also the crudest methods of word-making and has been postulated as one of the most important sources of all languages.  A number of words in our vocabulary today, especially those which describe some kind of sound, are obviously imitative in character; for example, ‘bang’, ‘pop’, ‘hiss’, ‘giggle’, etc.  The name of the ‘cuckoo’ is clearly an attempt to represent its distinctive call; the word ‘slither’ has a slippery suggestion, while words like ‘awe’ and ‘awful’ remind us of the exclamations ‘ooh’!  denoting surprise and wonder.  But of course, this process cannot be pursued too far.

2. An older word is given a new significance or its meaning:  If we look up he meaning of the word literally in any modern dictionary, we shall find that it means: “belonging to letters or learning; appertaining to literature”.  This, now, is the commonly accepted meaning of the word.  But in Johnson’s day it was not much used and when it was, it meant “alphabetical’.  Again, we all know that a ‘pedant’ is a person who likes to display his learning, but to Shakespeare ‘a pedant’ meant ‘a school master’.  Here, then, is an example of what was at one time a very general terms, but which has since been given a specialized meaning.  Wars also have sometimes been responsible for a change or extension of meaning.  The Great War of 1914-1918 gave a modern significance to the term ‘propaganda’; the war of 1939-1945 gave a new meaning to ‘militia’, a new application of ‘black-out’ (which, until then, was a theatrical term) and a new use for the verb ‘evacuate’.

3. A word which is normally one part of speech is used as another:  It is one of the characteristics of English language that it is possible to use the same word as noun, verb, adjective and many other parts of speech.  ‘But’, for instance, is normally a conjunction; but when we say, “But me no buts”, we are using the word as a verb and a noun respectively.  The nouns signifying the typical parts of the body can nearly all be used as verbs; for example, ‘eye a person with suspicion’, ’thumb a book’, ‘warn a person that he must toe the line’, etc.

When the same word exists as both noun and verb, the stress falls on the first syllable in the former and the second syllable, in the latter: cf ‘import (noun) and im’port (verb);  ‘permit (noun) and per’mit (verb) etc.  Again sometimes an adjective comes to have the force of a noun through the omission of the substantive which it originally qualified.  Thus a submarine is fairly obviously a shortening of ‘a submarine vessel’ or ‘a submarine boat’, while the noun ‘wireless’ was originally the adjectival part of the expression ‘wireless telegraphy’.

4. By the addition of Suffixes or Prefixes:  This is a very ancient method of word formation to be found in almost every language.  The Anglo-Saxons made fairly extensive use of it, taking a simple root word (usually a noun or adjective) and adding a suffix to express a related idea.  Those suffixes still in use are: ‘less’ (careless, hopeless, etc.) ‘-y’ (healthy, sticky, etc.) ‘ish’ (English, clownish); ‘meant’ (basement, government, etc.) etc.  Many of these living suffixes are of French origin, though by analogy they are often attached to the Saxon roots.  For instance, ‘ee’ (from the French past participle termination) in words like ‘employee’, ‘nominee’, etc.

In the English of the last hundred years, prefixes have been employed much more extensively than suffixes, and most of them come from the Latin ‘ambi-‘, ex-‘, ‘extra-‘, etc.  The only native prefix still extant and in common use is ‘un-‘.

5. By Abbreviation: At precisely what stage of its history, abbreviation becomes recognized as a word, it is not easy to say; presumably, when the full form ceases to be used in ordinary writing and speech, except perhaps by pedants and precisionists.  Thus ‘exam’, though good colloquial English, has not received any literary recognition.  The full form ‘examination’ is still heard frequently in speech, and would almost always be used in writing, though in another generation it may perhaps be considered pedantic.  The same is true of ‘lab’ as a shortened form of ‘laboratory’ and of ‘maths’ for ‘mathematics’.  But ‘zoo’ is now accepted as good English (no one would speak of going to the ‘zoological gardens’) and the term ‘Nazi’ has almost universally recognized as a substitute for the more cumbersome combination ‘National Socialist’.  At one period, when tricycles were in vogue, the term ‘trike’ was frequently heard, but this, of course, is now obsolete.

There are a number of words employed in everyday speech, which are all that is left of longer and more cumbersome forms.  ‘Mob’, for instance, is a shortening of the Latin phrase ‘mobile vulgus’ (literally, the ‘fickle crowd’) and ‘cab’ from the French ‘cabriolet’.  Then there are also the names of various wines and spirits.  Robertson, in ‘The Development of Modern English (1936)’ points out that ‘gin’, ‘brandy’, ‘rum’, etc., are abbreviations of ‘genievre’, ‘brandywine’, ‘rumbullion’, etc.

Sometimes, a uncumbersome Latin phrase is clipped down till only one or two significant words remain.  The word ‘quorum’ is a good example. It is actually the genitive plural of the Latin relative pronoun and means ‘of whom’.  It was the initial word of the instructions formerly issued to justices of the peace, specifying the minimum number of whom the court must consist before its proceedings could be considered valid.  Other such words are ‘affidavit’ (he has ‘sworn’) and ‘subpoena’ (under the penalty).  Certain passages are known by the opening words of the Latin version.  For example, ‘paternoster’ (our Father) and ‘Ave Maria’ (Hail Mary).

Each section of the community has, of course, its own abbreviations.  “The stud goes to a ‘varsity’, studies under a ‘Prof’ and writes his ‘exam’, enjoys ‘vac’ and gets his ‘cert’ or ‘dip’.  The sportsman speaks of a ‘pro’ and a young lady has her hair ‘permed’.  One two abbreviations of this kind may attain a general currency but the majority remain class-jargon.

The tendency to abbreviate has always been opposed by language purists.  As long ago as 1710, Jonathan Swift complained of the contemporary fashion for shortening words.  But subsequent history of language shows that his objections were of little avail.

6. Syncopation: The word ‘pram’ is an example of this process, whereby a vowel is elided and the consonants on either side of it are run together, with the result that a syllable is lost.  Perambulator (from the Latin verb ‘perambulare – to walk about) is syncopated to ‘perambulator’, which then becomes shortened to ‘pram’.  Other examples are ‘ones’, ‘elles’, ‘henes’ all of which are disyllabic.  Part participles like ‘born’, ‘shorn’, ‘worn’, ‘forlorn’ are likewise the result of syncopation, since all, at one time, had the termination ‘en’.

7. Telescoping: This process is something akin to the previous one, but here two words are combined into one.  The verbs, ‘to don’ and and ‘to doff’, for instance, are the results of the telescoping of ‘do on’ and ‘do off’.  Similarly with the verb ‘atone’.  In 1300, it consisted of two words, ‘at’ and ‘one’, and was used adverbially.  By 1557, telescoping had taken place and the single word ‘atone’ had taken place and the single word ‘atone’ resulted though it was still adverbial in force.  The earliest known example of the verbal use is from Shakespeare’s Richard II(1593).

“Since we cannot atone you

 Justice design the Victory’s chivalry…”

where it obviously has the meaning ‘set at one’ or ‘reconcile’.  It must be noted that Shakespeare uses it transitively. The intransitive form, ‘to atone for one’s sins’ was a later development.  More recent examples of telescoping are ‘pinafore’ and ‘overall’.

8. Metanalysis: The term is derived from the Greek and the means reanalysis or different analysis.  We all know how, in slovenly pronunciation, the phrase ‘at home’ becomes ‘atome’ or how a ‘flashing eye’ becomes a ‘flashing guy’.  The consonant at the end of one word has become attached to the vowel at the beginning of the next, and so by reanalysis, a new combination is formed.  Certain words which have long been in use in normal standard English came to existence in this manner.  For example, many people have today nicknames but until the middle of the 15th century, they would have had an ‘ickname’.  The first syllable ‘ick’ is a variant of the word ‘eke’ meaning ‘also’.  An ickname was therefore one which was bestowed on a person in addition to his real one.  But in the course of years, the final ‘n; and ‘an’ became attached to the beginning of the next word, and so was evolved the modern term.  Similarly, a newt (1420) was at one time an ‘ewt’ and ‘tawdry (1548)’ is derived from St. Audry, a patron saint of finery.

Sometimes, the process works the other way and the article steals an ‘n’ from the noun that follows it.  Thus ‘an anger’ (1594) is derived from the earlier form ‘a nanger.  Today, in cricket, we refer to an umpire, but prior to 1480 or thereabouts, it would have been ‘a numpire’; an anglicized form of the French ‘non pair’ (unequalled or supreme).  Other examples ae ‘ an adder’, ‘an apron’ (1535) ‘a napron’ and ‘an orange’, ‘a norange’.

9. Portmenteau words:  When part one word is combined with part of another to form a new word, carrying with the idea behind both the original terms, we have what is known as a portmanteau word.  For instance, when he wished to find a name for that part of humanity, in his day, who considered themselves socially superior because they possessed a gig, Carlye coined the term ‘gigmanity’ and to suggest the idea of galloping in triumph, Lewis Carrol invented the verb, ‘to gallumph’.  ‘Coninter’ for ‘Communist Inernational’, ‘smog’ for smoke and fog, ‘Trgicomedy, Memodrama.

10. Acronyms of words manufactured from Initials:  In certain cases, initials have become more commonly used than the actual words for which they stand, so that they can almost be regarded as words in themselves.  Thus, we speak of B.A., or an M.A., rather than a Bachelor of Arts or a Master of Arts, and a Q.C., an M.P. or J.P. and I.O.U. etc.  None but the very pedantic would ever think of abandoning these initials in favour of the words for which they stand.

11. Back Formation: Most back formations are the result of a misunderstanding, though a few have been deliberate.  The principle, and the way it works, can best be explained by taking actual examples.  In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, there was an adverb ‘groveling’ meaning ‘in a abject manner on the ground’.  The termination ‘ing’ was mistaken for the sign of the present participle, and this erroneous idea received encouragement from the fact that in most context, where the word occurred, a present participle would certainly make sense.  Having, then, transformed the adverb to a participle, the next step was to work back from this to an infinitive ‘to grovel’, and so, though a totally mistaken idea, a new verb was added to the English language.  In the same way, the verb ‘to sidle’ is a back formation from the adverb ‘sidling’ and the nouns ‘beggar’, ‘pedlar’, ‘hawker’ and ‘editor’ have given us the corresponding verbs, ‘to beg’, ‘to pedal’, ‘to hawk’ and ‘to edit’.

12. Corruption or misunderstanding:  Anyone who has heard a person ignorant of foreign languages attempting to pronounce some French or German tag will readily appreciate the way in which the mangling and corruption of such phrases may occasionally be responsible for bringing a new word into the language.  Soldiers returning from France during the war of 1914-1918 had a whole repertoire of these terms.  ‘Sil vous plait’ became civil play and ‘sane fait rien’ was rendered ‘san fairy Anne’.  Sometimes, corruption of a long phrase has been for mere convenience.  Thus ‘good-bye’ is a garbled form of ‘God be with you’ and ‘drat it’ a euphemism for ‘God rot it’.

13. False Etymology:  There are certain number of words in the English language which have attained their present forms or their present day usage, through mistaken notions regarding their etymology.  One such word is ‘posthumous’, which originally spelt without ‘h’ meant ‘coming after in order of time’.  But, by a mistake of etymology, the second half of the word ‘humous’ was assumed to be connected with death and burial and so the meaning ‘after death’ developed.  Possibly this, as well as some other words like helpmate, salt cellar, etc., are early examples of what, since the time of Sheridan has come to be called Malapropism.

14. Slang terms with the lapse of time come to be accepted into the literary vocabulary as ‘good English’: Many words, which today are no longer regarded as vulgar or low, and are even indispensable if we are to express ourselves fluently and with ease, were at one time outside the pale of literary or ‘polite’ language and were branded as slang.  The word ‘slang’ came into existence only in 1756 and was until then designated ’cant’ – a language employed mainly by thieves, smugglers and underworld generally.  The opening of Queen Anne’s reign and the next three quarters of a century saw an awakening of interest in low life and thus hitherto ignored language.  A number of dictionaries of slang were published, the chief of them being ‘A Dictionary of the Canting Crew (1700), A New Canting Dictionary (1725)’ and the most important of them all ‘Francis Groses, Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785)’.  Many words, whose origin is revealed in these books, are today perfectly good and respectable English. Some words pointed out as slang in 1725 Dictionary are ‘bet’ (a wager), ‘cove’ (man, fellow, rogue), ‘jilt’ (a tricking woman), ‘pinch’ (to steal) etc., Groses’ book has words like ‘adrift’ (loose, discharged0, ‘balderdash’ (adulterated wine), ‘blackguard’ (a shabby, dirty fellow) etc.

Today, slang is mainly the creation of those who despise or disregard convention and hanker after novelty of expression in the belief that it shows independence and originality, that is to say, the very young, the very low or the very high.  Possibly, many others which now are regarded as slang or, at best Americanisms, in twenty five or thirty years’ time, will find their way into the vocabulary of the most  ‘correct’ authors and the most fastidious speakers.

15. Words derived from Proper or Personal Names: Even excluding scientific and technical terms, where such formations abound, a long list could be compiled of words in the English language which are derived from proper or personal names.  For instance, Mrs. Grundy, the symbol of prudish, straitlaced public opinion, first came into being in Thomas Morton’s ‘comedy speed the plough’ (1800).   Thomas More gave us ‘utopia’ and the adjective ‘utopian’ as a derivative, while from Swift came “Lilliput’ and ‘Lilliputian’.  Garments also have borrowed the name of those who first wore them or introduced them to public.   Thus we have Norfolk Jackets, Mackintoshes, Cardigans, Wellingtons, etc.  Again, to certain races and nationalities, traditional characteristics have been attached by the popular mind, and this again has scope for new coinages.  If a person is mean, we call him a Jew or a Scotsman, if stupid an Irishman or a Dutchman, if an out and out materialist, with appreciation of the finer things of life, a Philistine, and if ruthlessly destructive a Vandal.  Then, from place names, there have been derived, numerous words for products with which they are associated or have been associated in the past’ calico from Calcutta, damask from Damascus and muslin from Mosul etc.

16. Two Other Words are Combined:  This is not quite the same process as syncopation, which we saw earlier, in that no syllable is lost.  Here, it is a combination of two other words, sometimes a noun and an adjective, sometimes a noun preceded by another noun which is used with something of an adjectival force.  Examples are words like weekday, goldfish, blackbird, railway, bookcase, waterproof, etc.  Occasionally, the two elements are hyphenated

e.g. dug-out, lean-to, air-raid, etc.

17. Conscious and Deliberate Coinages:  When a new invention or discovery is made, there not only arises the necessity of finding a name for it, but it brings in its track, a host of fresh ideas and fresh conceptions, so that a need is soon felt for words to express them.  Thus the vocabulary is enlarged by the addition of coinages.  There are, of course, various principles underlying the process, but the chief characteristic of a coinage is that an entirely new word is created, as it were from nowhere.  It is not merely a matter of extending the meaning of an existing word or making use of a proper name.  Not infrequently, we find several attempts made before a term is finally settled on as satisfactory.  Thus the earliest name for a bicycle was ‘Velocipede’ and what we now call an aeroplane was at one time known as ‘flying machine’. The classical tongues have proved a happy hunting ground for the word-coiner.  Scientist and inventors particularly have drawn upon them.  From the Greek, we have Oxygen, Hydrogen, Logic, Geography, Telephone, etc; from Latin, Radiator, Propeller, Impromter and Extempore.

18. Words taken direct from Foreign Languages: It is characteristic of English that it has always shown itself ready to borrow from other languages when they can supply a word that fills a gap in the native vocabulary, supplies a need, or is more expressive than a corresponding native term would be.  In this respect, it stands in direct contrast to German, which has always been very particular about its ‘purity’ and has insisted on coining a Germanic word for everything.

19. French Formations:  Although a few freak terms have managed to survive and pass into the accepted vocabulary in English, the  majority of such formations are nonce-words (words coined ad used on one occasion only) and are forgotten almost as soon as they are made.  For instance are words like ‘teetotal’ and ‘tandem’, the former of which is said to have originated from t-total.  The attempt of a stammering temperance advocate to pronounce the expression total abstainer and the latter from a University witticism.

We have now distinguished the nineteen chief ways in which words are formed or added to the language.  But it may be asked, how do these words come into being introduced, what is the motive behind the enlargement or extension of the vocabulary, and what factors determine whether such additions become permanent part of the language or live for while only and then become obsolete?  In general, It may be said that a new word is called forth by a need for it or a consciousness that no existing word is really adequate to fill the need: a new idea or conception is to be expressed, new institutions or new social developments and tendencies have to be described and distinguished; new inventions or newly adopted products, fashions, etc. must be given a name.  Whether the new words thus created or added to the vocabulary are permanent depends very largely upon the permanence of the objects or the ideas they are used to describe.  Words like ‘plump’ and ‘aloof’, though introduced in 1481 and 1532 respectively have become an essential part of our vocabulary while age-bound words like a trimmer and a high-flyes introduced in the later 17th century and early 18th century respectively have disappeared altogether.

Political and social developments, as well as religious controversies, have been the occasion of the introduction of numerous words into the language; and it is not always possible to trace them to any one person, though obviously they must have been employed by one person at first, even  if only an anonymous pamphleteer or newspaper writer, and then ‘caught on’.

But though the parentage of most words is now lost in the mists of obscurity, it is possible to assign some to definite individuals.  And here one remark must be made.  It is not always the best writers whose coinages become part of the permanent vocabulary of a language.  Rather it is the most popular, the most read or the most widely quoted.  Though the writers and their writings fall into neglect, the words coined by them continue to survive as long as they are useful.  This being the case, it is not surprising to find that the Authorised Version of the Bible is responsible for the introduction of a considerable number of words, though it is largely neglected today.

Many words and expressions too, we owe to Shakespeare.  To take only a few from the extensive list, we have ‘incarnadine’, ‘multitudinous’, ‘dauntless’, ‘dwindle’;  the phrases – ‘sere and yellow leaf’,  ‘the dogs of war’, etc.  Shakespeare’s contemporary Spenser has given us ‘elfin’ and the adjective ‘blatant’ and from Milton came ‘irresponsible’, ‘a dim religious light’, and ‘pandemonium’.  To Edmund Burke are attributed a number of political terms, e.g., ‘electioneering’, ‘representation’, ‘municipality’, etc., as well as the phrase ‘the great unwashed’, while from Burke’s successor, a century later, Benjamin Disraeli, comes the famous ‘a leap in the dark’.  To Coleridge we owe ‘pessimism’, to Shelley ‘idealism’, to Shaw ‘life force’ and to Huxley, ‘non-attachment’.

Since language is never static, new words are constantly being added and the outbreak of the War of 1939 also saw a number of new coinages like ‘admass’, ‘automation’, ‘cold war’, ‘iron curtain’, etc.