In which the Elegant Bastard explains the power to be found in the appropriate use of words like “Um” and “Ah” and “Er”. Neat, Eh?
What began as a simple question – How many English words are there? – ended up taking me the better part of a day to determine and the outcome was at best ambiguous. Answers ranged from about 150,000 to just over one million, depending upon what constitutes a word, whether compound words and multiple meanings count multiple times and whether or not words invented by acknowledged geeks – skeuomorphism? – needed to be considered at all.
I also discovered that an absolute answer, while no doubt fascinating, would be irrelevant to what appears to be the primary function of language today – the confusing of others. The Empire of Babel, Dear Reader, has now spanned the entire globe. And the very least we now have pyschobabble, ecobabble, econobabble, edubabble, sociobabble, obamababble, boehnerbabble and baby babble, the latter being the only variant ever evolves in to something making sense.
It wasn’t always this way. One can easily imagine a far distant pre-word era when woofs and grunts of various lengths and tonal variations were enough to get around. Given that career choice was limited to being predator or prey, resumes and interviews were pretty much non-existent and therefore the ability to tell articulate lies remained an undiscovered art.
There then followed an age of few words that all had very precise meanings. Life was just as violent as before but social relationships had emerged and caves needed decorating. Even with these advancements, middle and upper-class cavepersons probably managed to get by with less than a dozen; “eat”, “drink”, “mate”, “fire” and “run like hell” come immediately to mind. At this point in human history, “eat” and “drink” were likely interrogative, “mate” and “fire” imperative and “run like hell” communicated by mime.
The development of urban culture, competing civilizations and effective antacids expanded the number of necessary words exponentially. Now we had thousands of pasta varieties and even more ways of killing people. The emergence of conversation added the need for sophisticated slang vocabularies and some of the more popular body parts acquired hundreds of words dedicated solely to them. The birth of government required elaborate words that meant very little while the development of political correctness spawned words that meant nothing at all. “Run like hell” has remained pretty much what it always was. However, the number of things from which one needs to run like hell has grown to include plague infected squirrels, reality shows, Russian presidents and in much of North America, the mayor.
(“Run like hell” no longer necessarily means the sweat provoking stampede over large tracts of ground while screaming. It can now be achieved by drawing the curtains, turning off the phone and conducting extensive research into European vodka or South American flora.)
However, none of these uses of language answers our species’ primary need: differentiation. How in this enormous and teeming world can we ever make ourselves special? Some do this by creating esoteric and deliberately abstruse vocabularies that use language to impede or prevent understanding. In this way, a teacher’s complaint that he or she had to spend the weekend making up a test translates into two days spent creating a differentiated and criterion referenced summative assessment tool that serves as a gateway indicator. Special, no?
Interestingly, some of the original woofs and grunts have remained with us and, surprisingly, they can convey meaning just as and sometimes more effectively than their more complex progeny. In today’s edition of “The Elegant Bastard’s Dictionary”, I attempt to provide an exhaustive list of these very short exclamations that function primarily as emoticons or hesitation devices. Again, I ask for no reward other than your promise, Dear Reader, to use them wisely, widely and primarily with other people.
Ah: Expressed in a short, sharp fashion, the word means “Eureka!” or “I understand!” or “I accuse!” Traditionalists would insist that upon uttering this exclamation, one should leap from one’s bath and run naked through the streets, preferably somewhere in Greece. Less doctrinaire logophiles will permit the substitution of enthusiastic fist pumping or finger pointing.
Ah(2): Expressed in long, drawn out fashion and accompanied by an elegant finger placed lightly upon the chin, the word essentially means that the utterer has no idea what is going on but would die rather than admit it. The removal of any clothing in this situation would be an attempt to distract the listener’s attention.
Arg: Sometimes pronounced “Erg”, this exclamation expresses anger or pain. At its loudest, it means that special and intense combination of pain and anger experienced by someone applying a hammer vigorously to the thumb, Canadians trying to understand what’s wrong with Justin Bieber or anyone using Windows 8.
Aw: Used alone, drawn out and moving in pitch from high to low, it is the appropriate response to the cute actions of other people`s pets and children. Used as a short sharp outburst followed by “Damn” or “Crap”, it refers to the actions of one`s own pets and children.
Eh(1): A Canadian expression and likely genetic in origin, it’s use at the end of any sentence expresses the speaker’s confident assumption that the listener will agree with whatever has just been said, as in “Nice day, eh?” Used properly, it also means that the speaker can name four provincial capitals and sing most of the national anthem.
Eh(2): Used on its own, it replaces “Pardon me” for those who are syllabically challenged. The speaker is able to name three provinces and hum the opening line of the anthem.
Eh(3) Its repeated use in a short period of time suggests that the speaker may know his own name but should likely not be asked to hum anything.
Er: This exclamation suggests some degree of moral anxiety or confusion. (For real confusion, see Ah(2)) Uttered as a response to your question as to whether or not an article of clothing makes you look fat, you may safely assume that the article in question does not make you look thin and the persons responding are worried they might hurt you.
Er(2): If pronounced “errrrrr” in the same context, then you are enormous and the persons responding are worried that you will hurt them.
Ew: Used as a brief and unemotional single syllable, it suggests that your listener is mildly offended or seriously bored by whatever you have just said. It may be followed by a request that you perform some task requiring you to leave the room and/or the country.
Ew(2): Lengthened to a two-syllable sound with the stress upon the first syllable and pronounced “eee – uuu”, it refers to dogs with no shame, living organisms with more than four legs, or anything with polka dots.
Ick, Icky, Yuck, Yucky: These are used to refer to substances (or situations) that are unpleasant, especially to touch or taste. Of more importance is the fact that they are mostly used by those who see themselves as “cute”. As they will also use expressions like “itsy-bitsy” or “teenie-weenie”, they should not be left unsupervised near pre-literate children.
Oh: Used briefly, it acknowledges an understanding of something previously unknown. As such, it is often followed by “Thanks”, “Really” or “Hell”.
Oh(2): Extended, as in “Ohhhhh”, it suggests a profound and usually unwelcome new understanding. There will rarely be thanks and “Hell” will be replaced by much stronger terms.
O: This reverential form of address should be used when conversing with any divine being that is in the same room as you and powerful enough to cause inconvenience.
Umm: The speaker is making a choice, usually between two very pleasant options. Would you prefer to sample the coconut gelato or the green apple? Would the world be a better place if all of Antony Weiner disappeared forever or just the bits he flaunts?
Uh: Said briefly or drawn out, it means that the speaker is watching whatever you are doing and is hoping that you come with an “off” switch that can be accessed before it’s too late.
As always, Dear Reader, I hope you have found our time together useful. Again I would like to stress that I will accept no material reward for my efforts. However, those who want to express their gratitude in an appropriate fashion may do so by signing my petition demanding that anyone using the word “awesome” be forced to watch televised fishing programs every day for a year.
As always, feel free to “like”, “share”, “tweet”, or comment.