Diane Phillips: Why Are There So Many Words And The Right One Is Still Hard To Come By?


Diane Phillips

Someone just told you that at this very moment your perfectly fit, enviably healthy female friend is being airlifted to a Florida hospital with a life-threatening heart problem. You are flabbergasted.

A man you work with loses his mother after a long battle with cancer. You are flooded by feelings of sympathy on steroids.

At last, a happy shred of information. A young couple shares the joyous news they are expecting and will welcome twins into the world next April.

Despite the different tones of each of these messages, there is a common thread. News does not come in a vacuum. Whether happy, sad, tragic or startling, it arrives on the spot packaged with an expectation of a response. In other words, it’s like this: Someone tells you something and there is only one thing required of you, say SOMETHING now, instantly.

So why if there are more than 200,000 words in the English language, minus 47,156 which are obsolete, is it so hard to find the exact word or phrase to express yourself? You can name state capitals, recall NBA three-pointers, reel off a mind-boggling slew of trivia that absolutely no one needs to remember.

But when it comes to expressing yourself emotionally after being confronted with news that requires the right words at the right moment, we are about as adroit as a two-toed sloth after dinner.

Expressing ourselves properly is one of the most daunting challenges we face on a daily basis during normal times. Now that challenge is tougher than ever, exacerbated by COVID-19 social distancing measures. No longer can we get away with the simple act of popping our eyeballs to show surprise or looking like a scorned puppy to express remorse.

Absent face-to-face interaction when we get information to which we are supposed to respond without time to prepare, we have to rely on the spoken word. So just when we thought the pandemic had dished out just about all the pressure we can take, we realise that having to speak without using our face to show what we want to express adds just what we need – a little more stress when we least need it.

The practical process of finding the right words sent me on a quick tour around lexigraphy. Personally, I cannot imagine anything requiring more patience than editing a dictionary but there is a gentleman in Nassau who recently retired after spending decades doing just that. According to his wife, a friend of mine, he never got bored. He only decided to retire because one day he said he had seen enough words.

Back to the subject of words and finding the right one. Obvious question, how do authorities who count these things know how many words are in any given language? In the case of English, they use the number of entries in 2nd Edition of the 2020 Oxford Dictionary where for the first time COVID appeared. The Chinese language, interestingly enough, has the fewest words, 85,568, though Mandarin is the most popular language in the world. Amazing when you figure that the Chinese language has more than 100,000 characters, some 4,000 to 6,000 most commonly used, while the English language manages to configure more than 170,000 words with only a 26-letter alphabet.

Where does all that information leave us when we are wondering how to choose the appropriate word when news is blasted at you and you only have words, not smiles and looks of sympathy to rely on for communication.

As far as I can tell, it’s a lot like everything else COVID-19 has done to us. It makes us wish life could go back to pre-pandemic normal when we only thought we had reason to complain and when it came to responding to information that was tragic we could greet it as we should, with a hug, and when it came time to respond to news that was joyous, well, a hug was good for that, too.

Maybe, despite nearly 200,000 words, none is so powerful as the human touch and no matter how thoughtful the sympathy card is, it can’t compare with the thoughts we express when our mouths are quiet and our arms are open.


Police and Defence Force officers visiting Abaco to listen to residents on the issue of crime - but did they really get the message?

Get serious about the crime in Abaco

The government has introduced tax breaks and concessions to encourage people to rebuild in Dorian-ravaged Abaco. That is all well and good and congratulations to those who recognised the need for incentives and those who are tempted to return and rebuild.

But if the authorities and locals do not face up to the crime problem Abaco has, second homeowners will not return and local Abaconians will not grow their businesses or invest in its future like their ancestors did. Building supplies including tiles, lumber, plumbing fixtures, electrical wire and cable are going missing as soon as they are delivered to a job site.

A shortage of supplies, cash and security is underlying the explosion of sticky fingers. There is no sense trying to cover it up and make it pretty when it just isn’t. If Abaco is to rebuild and regain its reputation as the yachting capital of The Bahamas, a slow-moving living quilt where locals and second homeowners created a hometown feeling of blended cultures and friendship, its residents and officials must get serious about crime.

Happy birthday to you, chances are 365 to the power of one

A happy birthday next Tuesday September 15 to Leno founder and CEO Sean Longley and his son, who is turning 16. The chances of a father and son being born on the same day are one in 365, while the chances of a mother, father and child being born on the same day skyrocket to one in 133,000 or more than ten times rarer than the chance of being struck by lightning which is one in 12,000.

Information to pocket, just in case we ever get to a cocktail party again and need to make small talk, but seriously, Sean and son, happy day to both of you and hopefully, next year you will be able to celebrate together again.


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