By the Book: Some good old words that deserve new life

There aren’t many books you can buy in three different weights — the 100-pound version, the 30-pounder or the three-pound bantam weight — but the Oxford English Dictionary would be one. The 10-volume set requires a sturdy bookcase; the two-volume (four photographically reduced pages to a page complete with magnifying glass) is handier; and the entire immense work, on several CDs, would slip right into a knapsack. 

The OED, 22,000 pages in all, remains the undisputed king of dictionaries. I’m guessing 3 1/2 bazillion words, give or take.

We all know thousands upon thousands of those words, but how many do we actually use on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis? What about feckless or lissome or inchoate? In the last two weeks, how often have you used one of those? In the last two years? Or, as in the famous cartoon, how about never, is never good for you? There probably are studies that tell how many different words the average person uses in a given week — I’m guessing it’s relatively small. Erstwhile? Winnowing?

Here’s a terrific, practically forgotten word: “Hark!” (The exclamation point is compulsory.) And here’s Lord Byron: “Hark! A deep sound strikes like a rising knell!” Fanciful, yes, but here’s my idea for a cultural leap for us all. Everyone reading this column must use this word thrice in the coming week. At home: “Hark! The goose will be served in 11 minutes.” At work: “Hark! A 2-by-6 just fell on my foot.” In school: “Hark! I have conquered this complex equation.” If you imagine Rocky saying, “Hark! Adrian,” you’ll find this easier.

We’ve all been impressed by the way English is spoken at Downton Abbey. When Lord Grantham realizes he and Cora have failed to decide something and says, “Yes, we should have done” instead of “Whatever,” we all recognize our shortcomings and vow to do better. She: “Jack, you forgot to take the garbage out.” He: “Ah, yes, perhaps I should have done.” Good lad, Jack. Over the top, maybe, but the Brits do have some nifty words and phrases we could adopt. We had a visiting teenage English girl ask if she might wash her smalls in the bathroom sink. Uncertain, we didn’t dare answer until she hurriedly said, “My underwear, my underwear.”

Doc Martin’s “Come through” caught our attention (my doctor’s holding back), and every British detective — Frost, Morse, D.C. Banks, George Gently — calls his supervisor “Guv.” How many of you guys out there would dare say to your wife, “Don’t get your knickers in a twist”? And what time is it? Why, it’s half-six.

English is a tough language to learn, with all the homophones, the bough/cough/through affairs and the endless idioms. In the Bronx, back in the ’30s and ’40s, you would actually hear sentences like “Throw the baby out the window his hat” as people struggled to learn the language, unafraid to speak it as they learned. Similar struggles are around us today — we need to relax and lend a hand.

Keep calm and carry on. (And how did you like “thrice”?)

TR050808_book_Case_R.jpgMr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press. He can be reached at [email protected].