Put some English on Your English

Or, what do you mean nothing rhymes with angst?

With roughly 375 million native speakers worldwide, English is a serious language. Most experts rank only Mandarin and Hindi/Urdu as more popular with Spanishrunning just off the pace. Throw in non-native speakers and English starts looking like the busiest tongue on the planet.

English is easily the most requested lingo on the World Wide Web, and it’s also vigorously employed as a “world language,” the lingua franca of aviation, banking, computing, diplomacy, engineering, Hollywood, international business, medicine, NATO, science, technology and tourism.

Any language with that much to do needs lots of words. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, scraped together a thundering 475,000 main headwords, but even the lexicon’s editors figure that’s an awfully shallow estimate.

Thanks to neologisms 1, slang and catchy foreign terms, at least 25,000 new words are added to the language every year. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary just added several you might know.

  • Muggle: J.K. Rowling’s magic-free person
  • Blamestorming: Like brainstorming with a different purpose
  • Gaydar: Like radar with a different orientation
  • Grrrl: An independent, possibly sexually aggressive young woman
  • Ego-surfing: Googling yourself for self-gratification
  • Screenager: An adolescent annoyingly adept at computers and the Internet
  • Frankenfood: Chow with genetically altered ingredients
  • Meatspace: The actual material world as opposed to cyberspace



Even though it often comes across as a no-nonsense overachiever, English also sports a demonstrably peculiar side. Words with mysterious purposes and even odder properties haunt the language like ghouls frecking 2 about in a summer garden.

For instance, nobody wants to live life as an agelast, which is an individual who never laughs. People who strike you as affably persuasive can be described as swasivious.And, how much money can you really make as a cereologist, or crop circle investigator? A volpone is a sly miser; a quaintrelle is a woman dressed to thrill;philoxenists adore entertaining total strangers in their homes. And, who knew that when you fall hopelessly in love, you have entered a state of limerance?

Moving on, we find words that exploit their spelling to make seemingly absurd points.Queueing takes its place as the only common word in English with five vowels in a row. Uncomplimentary owns all five vowels in reverse order. Watchspring andcatchphrase each lug around six consecutive consonants.



The Guinness Book of World Records lists floccinaucinihilipilification, at 29 letters, including nine i‘s, as the longest “real” word in the English language. Dating back to 1741, this bulked-up term is all about the act of deeming something worthless. A much longer word at 45 letters, pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis, was coined artificially to steal the title and works as the technical term for a type of lung disorder. At 28 letters, antidisestablishmentarianism, uncoined, nontechnical and up to its ascenders in politics and the Church of England, was once the surly, undisputed champ.

Recreational linguists come up with all manner of tricks to have fun with words. Below are some of their more popular monkeyshines:

  • Palindromes are words spelled the same backwards and forwards such as civic, kayak, rotator and deified
  • Malapropisms jumble up similar-sounding words with often hilarious results such as the one delivered by a famous sportscaster who described a tight baseball game as a “real cliff-dweller”
  • Anagrams manipulate words and phrases to conjure up new creations, turningmarginal into alarming, or William Shakespeare into I am a weakish speller.

As for the art of rhyme, orange, once thought unapproachable, falls in with the Blorenge, a modest mountain in Scotland. Equally standoffish purple meets its match in curple, or a horse’s hindquarters. Luckily, loners like angst and wolf continue to repel mimics.

Of course, mere words can only peck fecklessly at the sheer diversity and dimension of English, which has to be lived to be believed. As for putting just the right spin, or English, on this amazing language, one American poet has few rivals. Below is one of his more flighty poems.

A Flea and a Fly in a Flue

A flea and a fly in a flue
Were imprisoned, so what could they do?
Said the fly, “Let us flee!”
“Let us fly!” said the flea.
So they flew through a flaw in the flue.
—Ogden Nash 3

1 Newly coined words, often stemming from the sciences or technology

2 Obsolete Scottish word meaning, “to move quickly or nimbly,” or “be keen for mischief.”

3 Ogden Nash once said, “I’m very fond of the English language. I tease it, and you tease only the things you love.”