By Elaine Rohse • Columnist • 

Rohse: A people of few words

One shortage that does not affect our world is “words”... and what a joy that is for our country: all the wonderful books, newspapers, magazines, movies, music, resulting from these words. The languages from which these words resulted are believed to have started somewhere between Neanderthal and Cro Magnon eras. Adding to the intrigue is that Neanderthal man was said to have had a pharynx too short to produce the sounds of human language, yet by 40,000 B.C. Homo Sapiens had evolved a vocal tract that was amazingly capable.

The English language contains more words than any other. Modern dictionaries have approximately 600,000 entries compared with 50,000 in Samuel Johnson’s First English dictionary in 1755.

Yet, in our everyday speech only about 60,000 words are used.

The most commonly used words in order of frequency, starting with those most used are: the, of, and, to, a, in, that, is, I’d, for, as. In conversations the word “I” is used more often than any other.

The longest word in literature appeared in writings by Aristophanes and it contains 170 components. One alphabet has 182 components or letters. The longest word in Webster’s Third International Dictionary has 42 letters and the most famous lengthy example is that word known by about every kid: antidisestablishmentarianism.

In 2020, the English language had 171,146 words, and we can use any of those that we like — at will. We can choose what we want to use in those books, newspapers when describing the view from Hebo or High Heaven or the pleasure of a glass of Yamhill County wine. We should appreciate our freedom to use any of those words, and each of those word pictures is something to add to our thanks next Thanksgiving. It’s called freedom of the press.

Usually, every year new words are added others are declared obsolete. Our English language has 47,156 of those obsolete words.

A new addition to our language is “pandemic language” and refers to Dr. Fauci: Dr. Anthony Fauci, is director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The new word is “fauci-ing”.

It refers to the act of turning down a date because someone is not taking the pandemic seriously enough.

Flowers also have their own language — and perhaps you should be aware of the message sent with your flower gift. For example: a pot of green ivy says, “Friendship, fidelity, marriage.” Every flower sends a message but roses are especially talkative. A rose of any color means love. A white rose says, “I am worthy of you”; a deep red rose says, “Bashful shame.” That single pink rose you sent says, “Simplicity” and a thorn-less rose stands for love at first sight. A withered white rose conveys “Transient impression.” The yellow rose speaks forthrightly “Desirous of love, jealousy.”

Something else to be aware of is the sexism in our language, as per this quote: “From the very first minutes of her life, a girl child is hidden behind the pronoun ‘he’.” Hospital instructors tell new parents, “When bathing baby, never leave him untended.” Dr. Spock, in his introduction to “Baby and Child Care”, apologizes for his constant use of the pronoun “he” to refer to all children. He reserves the pronoun “she” for the mother. At a school where students were frequently referred to by male pronouns, one little girl asked, “Aren’t there any girls in that school?”

And whereas it is customary to refer to a male judge, or lawyer, as a professional, if one refers to a woman as a professional woman, it has a bit of a different connotation. Our language has numerous such instances. Compare the terms bachelor and spinster, and use of “girl” when that age makes it no longer appropriate. And how about “babe,” and “the little woman”? Are there male terms for such? An unmarried woman may be called an “old maid.” Does “bachelor” depict a like picture of an unmarried male?

Something else: were you aware that the language you use reveals a bit about your age?

Some words that are said to date us, are mobile phone, Rolodex, and you are no longer supposed to refer to someone as being a “real card.” Don’t refer to your VCR or your answering machine and understand that airlines don’t employ stewardesses. Galoshes and overshoes are no longer on the market. Can we use overshoes or must we have wet feet?

It is no wonder that we have our favorite words.

According to the Reading Teachers’ List, 28 English words make up about half of our written English. Those hard-worked words are almost all one syllable.

In a way, that’s logical; if you find a word that fits your purpose and you like it, why not use it? And five of those words are presently doing a magnificent job for us and we hope they will never wear out.

Those wonderful words, as you probably guessed, are, “Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year.”

Elaine Rohse can be reached at


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