Monday, January 4, 2010

English needs a few more words



The English language now has somewhere between 600,000 and 1,000,000 words (my dog recognizes about 20 of them). Each year old words fade away and new words gain acceptance. Some words are extremely common. Some are  shunned. Some are encountered only in scientific documents or word games.

For 2009, dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster first recognized such terms as "carbon footprint," "staycation," "vlog," "webisode," and "waterboarding." They did not necessarily first show up in 2009, but M-W decided that they were used often enough in 2009 to be officially noted.

The venerable Oxford English Dictionarty (OED) has new entries including "refundable," "reggaeton," and "regift."

Despite the huge number and variety of English words, I think we still need a few more -- and they have nothing to do with modern technology like hybrid cars or 3D TV.

(1) We need a contraction for "am not."

We say "isn't he?" and "aren't you?" and "aren't they?"

"You" has become acceptable for both second-person-singular and second-person plural use, but "are" just seems weird when coupled to a singular noun.

"Aren't I?" sounds like a subject/verb mismatch, and "am I not?" sounds Biblical or Shakespearian -- certainly not appropriate for the 21st century.

There is a very simple solution: amn't, for such uses as: "Why are you taking the small car? Amn't I going with you?"

I first thought of this in sixth grade. My teacher dismissed my suggestion claiming that "ain't" originally meant "am not" and was pronounced "ahnt." She said that the word has been so frequently misused that it's no longer considered proper English, even when used the proper way.

I'm not the first to think of "amn't." It's used in dialects of Scottish English and Irish English.

More than 50 years have passed since my teacher spurned my suggestion. Today I am trying again.

(1) We need a contraction for "he or she."

That phrase is awkward and wastes space. In my own writing, to be gender-neutral, I mix up "he" and "she" and "he or she" and "she or "he."


Other writers use a silly and inappropriate "they" for a singular person to avoid specifying a gender. "When they sit in the driver's seat" just sounds stupid.


I wish we had something simpler like "s/he." Actually, that contraction has over a half million Google links but I don't think I've ever seen it on paper. I think I may start using it. If enough writers use it -- and their editors don't change it -- s/he could save some ink and some trees.

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1 comment:

  1. Reggaeton is a very unique music genre-- I don't know any other word for it or a reasonable substitute. It's a hybrid word that has become adopted into English useage, but I've been using it for at least 5 years, so I know it's been around longer than that.

    The she/he thing drives me nuts. I had a long talk with my editor because we are having a hell of a time dealing with that very same issue in my study guides this year.

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