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NOT at a Loss for Words

By Lydia Hope Wilen / New York City

Remember these?
Remember these?

Take a guess--a rough guess--as to how many words there are in the English language. No peeking at the dictionary. Oh, you no longer have a dictionary? If you guessed ‘one million words,’ you’d be correct, right, error-free, accurate, word-perfect, flawless…No wonder there are about one million words in our versatile language.

The average U.S.-born adult has a vocabulary of 20,000 to 40,000 words, depending on his or her reading and educational level. Okay, let’s take the average of the average, 30,000 words, and deduct them from 1,000,000. That leaves us with 970,000 words not used and possibly not known.

Here’s your chance to reduce that number by adding to the thousands you already know and use.


I. There’s a Word for That

Only a Highbrow Would Know This Word
Only a Highbrow Would Know This Word

“People with an impoverished vocabulary live an impoverished life; people with rich vocabularies, have a multi-hued palette of colors with which to paint their experience, not only for others, but for themselves as well.” –Tony Robbins, motivational speaker

How many times have you seen the space between your eyebrows? Probably daily throughout your entire life. Know what that space is called? It’s your glabella. Due to the use of Botox in that facial area, glabella may be more familiar now than in the past. And it may be why no one will ’fess up to knowing it.

Journalist Sylvia Wright coined a word in a 1954 Harper’s essay, explaining that when she was a child, this line from a poem often read to her, “And laid him on the green” was misheard and repeated by her as: “And Lady Mondegreen.” Since Wright’s essay, a misheard lyric or poetic line is known as a mondegreen.

We used mondegreens before knowing there was a word for them. Vintage examples: Remember Nat King Cole’s hit song, “They tried to tell us we’re too young”? We used to sing, “They tried to sell us egg foo young.” Think back to, “I’m wild again, beguiled again, a simpering, whimpering child again. Bewitched, bothered and bewildered.” We sang, “I’m wild again, beguiled again, I’m having a fatherless child again. Unhitched, bothered and bewildered." In WWI, "It's a long way to Tipperary" was a popular marching song My father used to sing: "It's a long way to tickle Mary.”

Today, kids may think Santa has a reindeer named “Olive” as in “Olive the other reindeer, used to laugh and call him names.” “Cry Me a River” has been heard as “Crimean River.” What would a mondegreen be without a Bob Dylan song? “These ants are my friends, they’re blowin’ in the wind” instead of “The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind.”


II. Wordplay

Playing with words
Playing with words

“You can’t build up a vocabulary, if you never meet any new words.”

Rudolf Flesch, author of Why Johnny Can’t Read

You probably know that an anagram has you rearranging a word into another word. Example: angel to glean. Here’s the new word: antigram, An antigram has you taking a word or phrase and rearranging it to mean the opposite of the original word. Examples: santa to satan, united to untied, earliest to arise late, evangelist to evil’s agent.

Paraprosdokian is from the Greek meaning, “against expectations” and is a sentence or statement with an unexpected ending. Examples:

  • I wasn’t originally going to get a brain transplant, but then I changed my mind.

  • Comedian Emo Phillips: “I’ll always remember my grandfather’s last words: ‘A truck!’”

  • Actress Zsa Zsa Gabor: “He taught me housekeeping; when I divorce, I keep the house.”

  • Writer Stephen King: I have the heart of a small boy. I keep it in a glass jar on my desk.

  • President George H.W. Bush: “People say I’m indecisive, but I don’t know about that.”

  • Writer Dorothy Parker: “He’s a writer for the ages…for the ages of four to eight.”

  • Writer Peter De Vries: “Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.”


III. Words Foreign Wide

An old bag--no, not you! This vintage carry-all
An old bag--no, not you! This vintage carry-all

“We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.” –Booker T. Washington, American Educator

Ah, mes amies, a minaudiere is a woman’s fashion accessory, all the rage in the 1930s. It was used in place of an evening bag and could hold several items—a lipstick, keys, compact, comb--in a small space. In case you have one, now you’ll know what it’s called if-and-when you want to list it on Etsy or eBay.

Many of our often-used words are borrowed from Greek, French or Latin. This word, however, is from the Japanese: tsundoku. It’s the act of buying books and never reading them. (Doku means reading, and tsun means to pile up.) Finish reading this article and then get to one of those tsun books on your shelf.

There are two German words for which there are no English equivalents. As a result, they’ve been adopted by us. Sadly, one of the two has become popular. It’s schadenfreude, which means (now it’s your turn to act dismayed by its meaning) enjoyment derived from the misfortune of others. It’s nasty human nature. The other word that is sure to gain popularity here, is schlimmbesserung. It means making something worse while trying to make it better. In today’s world, that happens a lot. Ask my computer. Ask my FILL IN THE BLANK with just about any electronic device.

“Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic.” –J.K. Rowling’s character Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows.

I hope you enjoyed this making magic session.


Photo Credit: Eric Stephen Jacobs
Photo Credit: Eric Stephen Jacobs

Lydia Hope Wilen had a successful collaboration with her late sister Joany as nonfiction bestselling authors (18 books), journalists, TV personalities, writers and talent coordinators on a Nickelodeon series hosted by Leonard Nimoy, Reading Rainbow episodes, skit writers for Dr. Ruth's TV show, Diet America Challenge on CBS, and writers of screenplays (optioned but not produced yet).

Lydia is writing on her own now and has just completed an extraordinary book for young people and their parents. It will have them laughing and learning...once she gets an agent and it gets published.



Mar 21, 2023

Tsundoku, huh? Somehow, I feel better knowing it has a name. You did it again, Lydia, now I have to figure out where to use all these! Reminds me of a friend whose agent told him his stuff was great, but who talks like that? He could only answer "Um, my friends do".


Feb 02, 2023

Lydia has found another articulate way to give our mind's a workout. It actually feels nourishing to encounter these arcane, obscure terms. In fact, Lydia has made me want to seek out new words that will leave me scratching my glabella. As always, the article graphics are exemplary.

Bob Pardi


Jan 28, 2023

Very interesting essay. We learned alot and was entertained at the same time. Lydia has a knack for doing just that. Ellen & Fred


Jan 27, 2023

Lydia makes writing seem so effortless - exactly a talent so hard to possess! SD


Jan 26, 2023

Each time I read Lydia's new article here in "the insider 1", I am taken to a place far away where I find my other self. That self is one who has a brain that can outthink the brain I brought to this far away place in my other self. How else can I express how informative and educational Lydia's articles are? Thank you, once again, Lydia, for taking me to class and for teaching me a bit more about how to think without being lazy. Best Regards, Don Vasicek

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