Moving forward - and backward - with the English language

By , csmonitor.com

English is a language most wondrous and strange - from its size, flexibility, and adaptability, to its decidedly mixed heritage and continued interbreeding with other tongues. A language where "phonetic" isn't spelled phonetically, where flammable and inflammable mean the same thing, but cleave and cleave mean opposite things. A language where there is a place for the sentence, "I'll set the set on the set so after the sun sets on the fifth set we'll be all set to set things in motion." (Granted, it might make sense only if you were challenged to a game of chess after watching the Men's Wimbledon finals on TV, but given the 464 definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary, it's not too difficult to find multiple "sets" in more commonplace conversation as well.) Naturally, no single site could ever do full justice to the English language, but this week's selections provide a few suggested starting points, for anyone interested in the curiosities and trivialities of "English as she is spoke."

Which brings us, without the slightest pretense of coincidence, to the week's first stop - and a unique view of the language from the outside. "English as She Is Spoke" was a late 19th-century English phrase book written by Portuguese writer Pedro Carolino - who, rather than use a Portuguese-English dictionary, took the more scenic route of translating - in stages - through Portuguese-French and French-English reference books. The result is almost certainly the worst phrase book ever written - with 'indispensable' Phrases like, "He burns one's self the brains" and "I have put my stockings outward," as well as such famous Idiotisms and Proverbs as "Keep the chestnut of the fire with the cat foot," and "Burn the politeness." (Not to mention a collection of brain-burning Anecdotes.) "English As She Is Spoke" is still in print, and has given its author a degree of immortality that few other translators could ever aspire to.

Lest we be too hard on Carolino, we should keep in mind the size and complexity of a language that boasts roughly 200,000 words, a quarter of which are considered 'obsolete.' But obsolescence can have charms of its own, and if reviving the antiquated appeals to you, or you wish to simply add some obscurity to your daily vocabulary , The Phrontistery offers more than 15,000 suggestions to add a doctiloquent flavor to your conversations.

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Though the obscurity of some entries (eg. halitosis, Beatlemania) might be debated, there is much of the unfamiliar and forgotten here. As flattering as it may be to compare your one true love to an amaranth, you'll probably have to explain what it is first.

In addition to having an alphabetical listing of the collection, The Phrontistery includes an introduction to Lipograms (literary works that deliberately omit one letter of the alphabet), recommended links, and a selection subject-specific Glossaries - so the next time you find yourself trapped in debate about, oh say, philosophy or dance, you'll be able to use trade-isms and fandangos with the best of them. (An even larger assortment of specialized vocabularies can be found through The Glossarist - a Yahoo-style portal to word collections all over the Web.)

And, as the Global Village (and imported television) has made clear over the years, even in terms of terms in common use, there's more than just one English language even in terms of terms in common use. In fact, even the meaning of "a billion" can vary, depending on when and where you're standing when you say it. So for those colonials who are considering a visit to the land of the mother tongue, or are simply trying to enhance their BBC America viewing experience, The English-to-American Dictionary has definitions for a little under 600 British terms that might not be immediately familiar on this side of the pond. (E.g., you don't have to be in a street gang to be a fan of "bangers," you haven't just been struck in the face if you're "gobsmacked," "Pants" should not be seen in public, and "Pelican Crossings" do not refer to an anomaly in the behavior of British wildlife.) Wikipedia also offers a table-formatted list of words that have different meanings in the two locations.

If you're into linguistic rather than geographic origins, the Online Etymology Dictionary dates some modern terms as far back as 2,000 years - and provides pronunciation, provenances, and even a few clarifications. (Etymologically speaking, a "dialogue" can take place between any number of persons - there's no two-person limit.) And of course, the origins of some common words can be surprisingly recent, as the language keeps growing through such channels as popular culture ("D'oh!"), turning trademarks into nouns (Aspirin, Kleenex), shamelessly snatching words from other languages (we wouldn't have Star "Trek" without the Afrikaners), and through simple invention and evolution.

And into that last category bravely steps Merriam-Webster's Open Dictionary, which encourages visitors to nominate words and/or meanings not currently listed in the 'official' online corpus. Some submissions are attempts to add established but overlooked options to the collection ("bandwidth", as "...time and/or resources necessary to accomplish a task"), others to promote slang to the mainstream ("ginormous"), while still others appear to be unadulterated exercises in creativity ("snew" as the past tense of snow).

Naturally, all this - to employ a well-used cliché - merely scratches the surface. From favorite words, to suggestions for banishment, to lessons in Conversational Terrorism and so much more, the English language itself offers as many entertainments as the literary works created from it.

(Hy-per-bo-le: noun. A figure of speech in which exaggeration is used for emphasis or effect. )

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