Lucky 13: A Quick Word About the Best Words in the English Language

Like many people in the workaday world, I spend most of my waking hours dealing in words. I get paid to write them, and sometimes that pay is based solely on how many words I actually write. When I’m not writing them, I spend much of my free time reading them – mostly on media sites or in books, but also in recipes I’d like to try, instructions I can’t figure out, communications I often ignore, and social media posts that either enthrall or horrify me.

I’m not sure how many words I know. The Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary apparently has 171,476 words that are still in current use. But most English-speaking folks are lucky to know one-quarter of those. The Economist, citing data from TestYourVocab.com, noted the following results from people who took the word test:

  • Most adult native test-takers have a vocabulary of 20,000–35,000 words
  • Average native test-takers of age 8 already know 10,000 words
  • Average native test-takers of age 4 already know 5,000 words
  • Adult native test-takers learn almost one new word a day until middle age
  • Adult test-taker vocabulary growth basically stops at middle age
  • The most common vocabulary size for foreign test-takers is 4,500 words
  • Foreign test-takers tend to reach more than 10,000 words by living abroad

I would assume I have an above-average vocabulary because of my academic and professional background. I doubt my vocabulary stopped at middle age, but then I can’t think of another word for “vocabulary,” so maybe I’m wrong. In addition to my vast inventory of English words, I also know lots of foreign words: pollo, wienerschnitzel, jus, latke, hummus, masala, innit, etc.

One word I didn’t know, until I just looked it up, is “tmesis.” It means cutting a word in two and sticking another word in the middle. The word in the middle is usually something of an obscene nature, such as “out-f******g-standing.” Tmesis is a great word for no other reason than it manages to start with “tm” without suffering a stroke.

Like most speakers of words, I like some words better than others, while there are some I simply cannot abide anymore (I’m talking to you, “brand”).

Anyway, today’s blog is devoted to 13 of my favorite words. First, an explanation:

I didn’t go through a very lengthy process coming up with this list. I just thought about some words I find likeable, interesting or phonetically pleasing, and jotted them down. It was all done quickly, right off the top of my head. I figured if I had to think too long about words I like, then maybe I don’t really like them that much.

One thing I didn’t do was fill the list with the obvious selections – love, family, honor, liberty, sequestration, pratfall, canker. I’m not drawn so much to the meaning of words as the sound of them, the look of them, the mood they set, the rules they break.

So without further ado (or adieu), here be the list.

Evergreen: Conjures up images of happy little trees staying green forever, no matter the circumstances, no matter the trials and woe. There’s just something comforting about that. And it has a comforting sound: ehhhhhvergreen. Interesting side note: this term is also used in journalism and media. When you are told to make your copy “evergreen,” it means writing it in a way that doesn’t date the material, so it will still be relevant well into the future. Like the very blog before you.

Tranquil: Just hearing the word “tranquil” calms the tortured soul. It even sounds tranquil, with the soft “tran” (close to “trance”) followed by the even softer “quil.” I imagine the Nyquil flu brand – my sleeping aid of choice – probably copped its name from tranquil.

Blue: One of the most powerful words in the English language, and easily my favorite color. There are 99 shades of blue – navy, light, cobalt, sky, aqua, etc. – and the worst shade of blue is still better than the best shade of yellow. The sky that allows us to breathe is blue. The water that gives us life is blue. Virtually every major popular musical form over the last century has its genesis in the blues: jazz, R&B, soul, rock, funk, punk, rap, country, hip hop, pop, reggae. Police lights are blue. When your computer is getting ready to croak, it is often preceded by a “blue screen of death.” When you’re feeling down, you’re blue, yet when you see a brilliant blue horizon or blue waves crashing against the shore, you get an instant pick-me-up.

Iota: The hardest working word in the English language. Four letters, three syllables. Three vowels wrapped around a “t” pretending to be a “d” (how many people actually pronounce it eye-oat-uh instead of eye-oh-duh?). The kind of word you think you can bully, until it flips you on your back and slaps you around. Very popular in crossword puzzles.

Copacetic: If you ever want to fly into the cool zone, trot out “copacetic.” It’s the exact right word to use when no other word will do. It’s cool and calming. Hey, it’s all copacetic, no need to stress over this little thang. Oddly, it doesn’t really sound cool at all. It sounds like a heartburn medicine. Ah honey, you ate too much vindaloo for lunch. Go take a Copacetic.

Cool: I wrote about the coolness of cool in a separate blog. I still and will forever maintain that no word exudes coolness quite like cool. It sounds cool because you can keep stretching it out forever and ever without losing its mojo, because it’s just so cooooooooooooooool. It looks cool on the page, with that hard “c” in the beginning, those two lazy “o’s” in the middle, and that soft “l” at the end. Cool is the best temperature – not too cold, not too hot, just cool and comfortable. It tells you to relax and keep it together: Hey, stay cool, sister. It tells you everything is fine: It’s all cool, mate. It tells you something isn’t as important as it used to be: Enthusiasm over Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers has cooled considerably since 1988. Very cool.

Voodoo: Here’s an example of a word that perfectly fits its meaning. Both the sound and look of “voodoo” conjure up images of witchcraft, mystery, the dark side. Even if you didn’t know what voodoo meant, simply reading or saying it would send a chill down your spine.

Monstrosity: This just seems like a hilarious word to me – big, fat, grumpy, like it has a headache and wants to be left alone. At the same time, it’s also quite lyrical. Mahhhhn-STROSS-it-ee. It should be the name of a classical music composition – Monstrosity in G Minor – but it means something foul and ugly. No wonder it’s grumpy.

Spiritual: A mellifluous word that is not only pleasing to the ear, but to the soul as well. “Spiritual” doesn’t draw any borders or set any rules about faith or belief. It just means you have a belief in something, and if it brings you comfort, then embrace it.

Fleece: Here’s a light, breezy word with two distinct and seemingly contradictory definitions. One means the soft, wooly covering on a gentle little sheep (or goat). The other means somebody has just swindled your ass out of money. I wonder if anybody has ever been fleeced out of their fleece. Probably.

Indubitably: I don’t think I’ve ever spoken or written this word until just now, in this blog. I don’t think I’ve heard anyone else speak it, either. I’ve probably read it, but I don’t remember when or where. I’m not even sure what it means. I think it means something like “evidently,” or “certainly,” but I’m not going to look it up. It’s just an amazing word from a purely technical standpoint. It looks and sounds like it has too much on its plate, as if whoever invented it got distracted halfway through and decided to just throw any damn thing in there. It’s like eight words in one, crowded into a cramped apartment. Just sound it out. In-doo-bit-uh-blee. The “b’s” really dominate, even though there’s only two of them. It has five vowels, all separated by consonants. It’s a hilarious word to say and look at.

Laconic: There’s something very rhythmic about “laconic” – it even rhymes with rhythmic – so it’s a shame that it has such a mundane definition. Laconic means “concise,” or using as few words as possible to make a point (I used to think it meant “lazy” and “tired,” but for once, I was wrong). “Laconic” should mean something like “sexy,” so it can be used in sizzling love songs. You’re my fine laconic baby, drivin’ me crazy the way you wear that smile. It somehow doesn’t work when the translation is, You’re my concise laconic baby, drivin’ me crazy when you use the minimum number of words to get your point across.

Crank: Some words are just loud and funny, and this is one of them. It leaps out at you and gets right up in your face, starting with a hard “kuh” sound and ending with another hard “kuh” sound. Everything about “crank” is noisy. Crank up that music. Crank the engine, let’s see if it’s the crankshaft. If the machine stops workin’, turn that crank. It’s such a funny word that when people want a laugh, they make crank calls. Interesting side note: it’s also a word for crystal meth.

Note: Image courtesy of Bruce Wayne, Esq., Gotham City

2 Comments

    1. Very interesting post! And while I think all the words are fascinating — and the only one I know is pixilated — I have to say my favorite is floccinaucinihilipilification. There’s just a whole lot going on there.

      Liked by 1 person

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