Our Living Language
By Patrick F. Cannon
According to a joint study by Harvard University and Google, there are 1,020,000 words in the English language. Just how they came up with that number is a mystery to me, but must have involved computers and millions of chimps.
The study did concede that many of the words they counted are now archaic, i.e., they are no longer used or have lost their original meaning. As so often happens, when I stopped reading the study after the first few paragraphs, I began to think of words that have been lost to us during my own lifetime. Here are but a few.
- Modest/Modesty. Like most English words, modest had several meanings. When I was a lad, for example, most women and young girls dressed so that their female charms were mostly covered by their clothing. It was said that they dressed “modestly.” As I recall, even a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking. Now, of course, anything goes. What once caused arrest at the beach, now largely goes unnoticed (except by the beastlier of men). Another meaning described someone of minimal ability or talent – they were said to be “modestly” talented. It is to be lamented that this usage is now obsolete, since it would be useful in describing entertainers like Justin Beiber and artists like Jeff Koons. Finally, one was said to be modest if he or she didn’t call attention to their achievements. I don’t recall Joe DiMaggio or Stan Musial ever flipping their bats or taking bows; or Jim Brown dancing the hoochie koochie in the end zone. Nowadays, it’s difficult to know whether you’re at a ball game or a circus. So, as you can see, modest, modesty and modestly are archaic.
- Discretion. According to one dictionary, the primary meaning of this now-dead word was: a determination not to cause offence or reveal private information. The opposite was, of course, indiscretion. Although everyone is now indiscrete, they don’t know they are because “letting it all hang out” is a national pastime. We live in an age when everyone seems to be taking pictures of their every activity, even their naked selves, and happily sharing the images with their Facebook and Instagram followers. There was a time when gentlemen “did not kiss and tell.” Now, particularly if they’re celebrities like Justin Beiber (again) or Taylor Twit (or is it Swift?), they can’t wait to get even with their rivals and ex-lovers (sometimes the same person). To do it properly, they hire specially-trained publicists, who were once called flaks, but have gone up market and are now called tit for tattlers.
- Probity. A person is known for his or her “probity” if they have strong moral principles, honesty, decency and uprightness of character. You are unlikely to have ever come across this word, since so few people now possess these qualities; and no politician has been known to have them for several generations.
- Civility. The base word “civil” is still used. Civil rights are still widely praised, if little understood; and civil government is understood to include governments at all levels. The study of all this, Civics, was once widely taught in schools, but has largely been replaced by something called “social studies” at the lower grades, and Marxism at our universities. To be “civil,” meant to treat one’s fellow citizens with the kindness and respect one would hope that they would return to you – really, just the Golden Rule. It seems clear that this meaning has been lost. Anyone who drives an automobile will know that there is a war raging on our streets and byways. Shots are fired more often than someone courteously yielding to another driver. If a man offers to give up his seat on the bus to a younger woman, he is likely to be arrested and branded a sexual predator. And removing your hat in the presence of a lady only means your head itches. Some men now never take off their caps, even in the finest restaurants. When dining out, it’s difficult to know whether you’re at Alinea or Joe’s Diner. Well, maybe they don’t take photos of the hamburger and fries at Joe’s, or jabber at their phone instead of their dinner companion.
Now, it’s certainly possible that these, and many other archaic words, will someday make a comeback. For example, codpiece became obsolete hundreds of years ago; now, one sees it on the menus of many fashionable restaurants. Wait, I may even have a photo here on my phone.
Copyright 2019, Patrick F. Cannon