How to build your vocabulary: Make up new words

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No one would describe me as “a man of few words.” More likely they’d call me “a man of about seven hundred words, every Wednesday, back of Datebook.”

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, by way of the BBC News, there are approximately 171,146 words currently in the English language, along with 47,156 obsolete words.

Clearly, I don’t know every one of them. Matter of fact, I don’t know exactly how many I know. I suppose I could make a list, but that seems pretty random. It’s been estimated that the average native speaker knows between 20,000 and 35,000 words. We can put me on the low side of that, but still and all, it’s a lot to keep straight.

I’d bet my husband, Brian, knows a lot more words than I do, as evidenced by the way he trounces me in Words with Friends. But not so much my sons Zane and Aidan, who have always squirmed through each and every vocabulary quiz. As for the canines in the family, well, Doctor Seuss insisted that he could teach his dog a hundred words. He must never have met a Pekingese. Queenie understands only “chicken,” “walk” and “Greenie” (her favorite treat). She has resisted all efforts to teach her the word “No!”

Gyles Brandreth, a British broadcaster and ex-politician who claims to know about things like this, has estimated that in the average lifetime, an English-speaking human speaks 860,341,500 words. Granted, there are a lot of repeats, like “the,” “of” and “and.” But one recent estimate says that a new word is created every 98 minutes.

I read an article — “How Many Words Does the Average Person Know?” –on Wordcounter.io the other day that stated people learn at least one new word a day until middle age, and then stop. That’s somewhere around 60. So I figured I would just not turn middle-aged. Others use Botox or Lady Clairol. For me, it’s lexicology.

I don’t want to run out of words, so I’m always on the lookout, like a magpie. I don’t pick up every mot (bon or mal) I meet, just the shiny ones, like “incandescent,” or the ones that are fun to say, like “ululation.”

True story: I had a boss who was pretty mean to me, so every time I wrote him a memo, I included one word that I knew he would have to look up.

Occasionally a word surprises me, like I thought I knew what it meant but turns out I didn’t. This week it was “portmanteau.” I thought that was a French carrying case, and it turned out that I was partly right (from the French porter, to carry, and manteau, coat, it means a bag that was big enough to carry a coat). But the term also has a more interesting second meaning. Those readers with the 35,000-word vocabulary already know this, but a portmanteau also means a word that blends the sounds of two different words. Kind of like a contraction.

Lewis Carroll coined it when he explained his poem “Jabberwocky.” Humpty Dumpty advised Alice that “slithy” meant “lithe and slimy.” “Frumious” combined “fuming” and “furious.” Humpty continued: “You see, it’s like a portmanteau — there are two meanings packed up into one word.”

It’s a game everyone can play. There are the mundane: smoke and fog make smog. Breakfast and lunch make brunch. Batman and Captain Boomerang worked together to make the “Batarang.” The Muppets started out as a marionette/puppet hybrid. Velcro comes from the merger of velvet and crochet. Cronuts combine the best of croissants and donuts.

It helps with current events. Brexit is the British exit from the European Union. Wasn’t until I went down the rabbit hole of portmanteaus that I found out that the Donbas area where the Russians have been attacking is a portmanteau for the coal region Donets Basin.

Supercouples do it all the time: Bennifer for Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, Brangelina for Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. TomKat. Kimye. Desilu. By now you’ve surely worked out that if Billy Porter dated Inspector Clouseau they’d be … Portmanteau.

And here in the Outer, Outer, Outer, Outer Excelsior, my husband and I become Brevin. My sons, Zane and Aidan, become Satan … I mean, Zadan. May we live happily ever after, safe in our little portmantungalow, still learning a new word here and there, even if Brian and I are both gentlemen of a certain age.

After all, we don’t want to end up as yestergays.

Now it’s your turn: Have a favorite portmanteau? Ever coined one yourself? How about inventing one right now? Email me with your suggestions and I’ll share the best in an upcoming column.

Kevin Fisher-Paulson’s column appears Wednesdays in Datebook. Email: [email protected]



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