Focus on Education October 2021 No. 2

An excerpt from an article in TIME Magazine:

The two oldest uses of the word “like” in the English language are the adjective ‘like’ and the verb ‘like’.

In the sentence, “I like your suit, it makes you look like James Bond,” the first ‘like’ is a verb and the second is an adjective.

Today, these two ‘likes’ sound exactly the same, so most people don’t even notice that they are different words with separate histories. They are homonyms, in the same way that the noun ‘watch’ (meaning the timepiece on your wrist) and the verb ‘watch’ (meaning what you do with your eyes when you turn on the TV) are homonyms – each of two or more words having the same spelling or pronunciation but different meanings and origins.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that the verb ‘like’ comes from the Old English term ‘lician’, and the adjective comes from the Old English ‘līch’. However, the pronunciation of the two uses converged at some point over the last 800 or so years.

When I was at school, back in the Bronze Age, I had an English teacher who left a lasting impression on me. He once appeared in the classroom bouncing on a pogo stick. One of those children’s toys; a pole with handles, foot pegs and a big spring on the bottom. It was strangely compelling. As it turned out, he was surprisingly good at it, and managed to deliver the first 15 minutes of his lesson without once stopping or falling off. In fact, after a while, we stopped noticing the pogo stick at all.

Which, as it happened, was the point of his lesson. He was talking to us about a playwright called Harold Pinter, who often scripted weird things into his plays, knowing that audiences would come to accept them as normal after a while. I confess, I have never been brave enough to attempt public speaking on a pogo stick myself!

Neither have I ever forgotten something that teacher said to me in a lesson one day. He had just returned some essays to us, but mine was unmarked and without a single comment in the margins. The only feedback was the word YAWN, daubed in what appeared to be red paint across the front page. “Bird” he said as he threw it at me, “Interesting people use interesting words, dull people use dull words. There are one million words in the English language – you have no excuse to be boring.” It was another lesson I have never forgotten.

I did think he was exaggerating mind you. About the million words, not my linguistic laziness. I am pretty certain it was a deadly boring essay. Anyway, I went and checked and sure enough, English has the most words of any spoken language. 171,476 commonly used words, with a further 615,000 definitions. Add in approximately 50,000 Old English words that are now obsolete, and there you have it. Over one million English words!

In case you are interested the newest words to enter the English dictionary this year are: contactless, virtue-signalling, body-positive, and PPE.
The word “like” has two meanings. I like your suit. It makes you look like James Bond. Except now, for those lazy in their speech, it seems to have 3 other meanings as well. Apparently, it is now a quotation mark. I spoke to Mr Conway this morning and I was like “Mr Conway”. And he was like “Yes Dr Bird?” And I was like “Could you take Assembly next week? And he was like “Certainly.” And I was like… You get the picture.

Secondly, ‘like’ has become what is called a discourse marker, better known as a filler word. “Like, when you are not quite sure what you are going to say next so you, like, stall a little bit in your, like, sentence, so you can like, make some more stuff up.”

And if that wasn’t enough ‘likes’ to last a lifetime, it is also now used as an approximation. As in, “I have been thinking of having a rant over lazy language for, like two months now. It has been annoying me for, like, years.”

Of course, all those likes may seem perfectly reasonable to you. It is entirely possible that I have finally completely morphed into a pedantic, grouchy old word git. But in my defence, how is anyone supposed to understand a well-known celebrity when she uses all five versions in a single sentence? I quote:

Like, I like her dress but, like, it makes her look too like, old. But when I like, told her, she was like “No way” and I was like “Yes way.” And she was like “Really? And I was “Like, it adds like ten years.” Seriously. There are 999,999 other English words to play with; give a few of them a try.

Some languages are easier to learn than others, of course. There is debate about which is hardest; some say Mandarin or Cantonese. Mandarin Chinese is also the language with the greatest number of native speakers. The language spoken by the greatest number of non-native speakers is English.

But whether English is your learned, native, or only language, what I want to do is encourage you to master it while you are here. Because here are some more statistics:
Those of you who have grown up speaking English knew about 5000 words by the time you were 4 years old. By the time you were 8, that had doubled to 10,000 known words. On average, you have then carried on learning approx. one new word a day. Research suggests that you will keep on at that rate until you are in your forties, at which stage your vocabulary tends to stop growing. So that, by middle age, the average adult speaker of English knows and uses about 25,000 – 30,000 words. That’s less than 5% of all the words available to them.

Which means that even if you were born and bred speaking nothing other than English, you are not necessarily fluent. At least, not as fluent as you could be. That is why, even for those who are native English speakers, I encourage you to follow the example of your classmates from other countries and keep learning more of your own language. For the limits of your vocabulary are the limits of your world.

Even when you’re not speaking. Alone in your own mind, your thoughts come in sentences. Feelings, emotions, are instinctive, unshaped by language. But your thoughts appear in your head as words, albeit unspoken.

Therefore, the smaller your vocabulary, the smaller your ability to understand your world. I think it is a great sadness that native English speakers (and I daresay it is true in other languages too) reach a certain level of words they know and are comfortable with, and then fall into the habit of using only those phrases repeatedly. Settling for clichés, over-worn phrases, predictable patterns of speech. Lazy language, like “like”.

Hence why my old teacher’s words still haunt me today. Dull people use dull words. How others perceive you is largely defined by how you communicate. Given that most communication is verbal, that means that your vocabulary advertises your personality.
Grow your vocabulary and you grow your personality. If you are writing an essay or a report, don’t just use a dictionary, use a thesaurus. Find some synonyms. Put one of those “Word of the Day” apps on your phone. If you hear an unfamiliar phrase, don’t ignore it, Google it.

Even if you are just messaging online, don’t rely on banal emojis or fatuous acronyms. L.O.L. Use words. New words. Odd words. Eye-catching, show-stopping, juicy, full flavour words. Words that actually do make the person on the other end “laugh out loud.”

Another playwright I studied at school, Oscar Wilde, once finished a message to a friend by saying “I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter, I didn’t have time to write a short one.” The point being, it is harder to conjure up a few judiciously chosen words than it is to just spew out endless verbal candyfloss. But so much more effective when you do. It’s, you know, like, seriously impressive.

Stay well and safe.

Be kind to yourself and others.

Best wishes,

Dr Bird