As of January 1, 2014, the English language had 1,025,109.8 words. At a rate of creation of one word every 98 minutes or 14.7 words per day and with a total elapsed time of 306.9 days as of the time I write this (November 3, 2014 at 9:31pm), that means that the English language currently has an estimated 1,029,621.23 words.
English has officially done been a millionaire.
So we know that we have a wealth of words in our language. But just like having more than 320 channels at our disposal, of which one only watches 17, according to Nielsen, the average adult knows anywhere from 20,000-35,000 words, according to the Economist, and of all those words, only uses a fraction thereof on a daily basis.
a cushion that you kneel on while praying
An untapped treasure trove
Stephen Fry put it best:
For me, it is a cause of some upset that more Anglophones don’t enjoylanguage. Music is enjoyable it seems, so are dance and other, athletic forms of movement. People seem to be able to find sensual and sensuous pleasure in almost anything but words these days. Words, it seems belong to other people, anyone who expresses themselves with originality, delight and verbal freshness is more likely to be mocked, distrusted or disliked than welcomed. The free and happy use of words appears to be considered elitist or pretentious.
What we have is a masterpiece inherently inside all of us. Every single human being on this planet was born with a language and every single human being on this planet has the capacity to use that language to craft sounds that delight, challenge, and excite. It’s all about being intentional–intentional about word choice.
Being intentional about language means being willing and able to break out those SAT words in everyday conversation whilst also being willing to use expletives with the same amount of ease and for the sake of sound and enhanced meaning.
Where things can go wrong
True mastery of language does not consist of saying things like
THE RAT THE CAT THE DOG CHASED KILLED ATE THE MALT.
~Chomsky and Miller (1963)
ANYONE WHO FEELS THAT IF SO MANY MORE STUDENTS WHOM WE HAVEN’T ACTUALLY ADMITTED ARE SITTING IN ON THE COURSE THAN ONES WE HAVE THAT THE ROOM HAD TO BE CHANGED, THEN PROBABLY AUDITORS WILL HAVE TO BE EXCLUDED, IS LIKELY TO AGREE THAT THE CURRICULUM NEEDS REVISION.
Chomsky and Miler (1963)
What true mastery of language is is the knowledge and mastery of knowledge to convey a message in the best way possible. Note, I did not say “most efficient,” “smartest,” or “fanciest,” despite the best attempts of grade school English classes, but rather the best way.
The best way depends on the individual situation and needs: when it’s possible to play with sounds, words and meaning, it’s time to break out the best puns out there. When it’s needed that one restrain language for the sake of understandability, it’s time to choose words carefully.
Just as with wine tasting, understanding the nuances goes a long way and the best way to understand those nuances is to explore the boundaries of our own linguistic abilities.