So Many Words, So Few Chances to Use Them

The new version of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (Motto: "Shorter is a relative term. See page 2,498.") is out and, in the great tradition of British understatement, is longer than the last edition. The two volumes, which weigh in at 3,792 pages and 14.5 lbs, are nothing compared to their full-sized parent, which takes up a whopping 20 volumes. Of course just because it's shorter is no reason to heap praise on it. That would be like saying Swept Away is a good movie because it doesn't last as long as Word War II. It only feel like it does.

The Shorter version is actually more up to date since they added 3,500 new words to it, including chat room, D'oh, and text as a verb. It's good that they keep it current. Now I know the difference between a place where you pick up Indian snacks and one where you try to pick up 50-year-old men masquerading as 16-year-old ready to be deflowered virgins named Bambi, that I've been leaving an apostrophe out of my animation exclamations for the past 15 years, and that all those petitions I passed around trying to have broccoli, hairline, and Dr. Phil declared as verbs may not be for naught.

I have to wonder, though, whether we really need more words. Face it, we hardly use the ones we already have. The Shorter OED, to use its abridged name, defines 98,000 words, which is a pretty good deal when you figure that at a bargain basement $150 per set it breaks down to about one tenth of a cent per word. Experts estimate that the average educated person has a vocabulary of about 20,000 words, even though, like, most of the time they only, you know, use a few of them over and over. If you know what I mean. Subtract the 47,000 words the dictionary's editors admit are obsolete--yes, you're paying about $71.94 for wasted, useless words no one's uttered since Beowulf was a cub--and you still have 31,000 words which are hardly being used. Blow the cobwebs off, use a Johnson's Wax Disposable Word Wipe� to polish them up, and the next thing you know you'll have plenty of perfectly good words you can use without having to resort to newfangled ones like comb-over (one strand, hyphenated), bad ass (two words, ten years to life), and go commando (which has nothing to do with Special Forces going into Afghanistan).

The new entries came from many sources, including music (gangsta), science fiction (Jedi), business (Prozac), and politics (Grinches). Since they have a rule which says words must be used five times, in five different places, over five years before being eligible, none of President Bush's coined words, like misunderestimated, Hispanically, ooching, embetterment, and explorationist have made it in. Yetly. They did make an exception to this rule when they added text-messaging, but only because they knew it was common in England and not in the U.S. and they still haven't forgiven us for taking all those colourful u's out of their favourite words.

One thing they haven't updated is collective nouns. These, in case you slept through English class that day because you stayed up late watching Johnny Carson's monologue to prepare for a current events pop quiz, is a fancy term for a specific group of animals. You know, like a herd of elephants, a pack of wolves, and a bevy of quail. Also a murder of crows, a shrewdness of apes, and a crash of rhinos. No, I'm not making these up, they really exist. So does a sleuth of bears, an exaltation of larks, and a bale of turtles. Good thing folksingers didn't know this or the old song would have gone, "Gonna jump down, turn around, pick a bale of turtles" and that would have screwed up children everywhere, not to mention get animal activists' organically grown hemp fiber nuclear test-free panties in a knot.

But since we're in the New Millennium we heard so much about for way too long, it's time we added some new collective nouns to our language. How about a sorority of coeds, a Bubba of rednecks, and a palette of artists? Shouldn't we talk about a file of computer programmers, a bubble of blondes, and a staff of musicians? Wouldn't it make sense if you said, "Hey! Look at that round of drinkers, that corral of cowboys, and that lot of real estate agents."? And don't you think we should start referring to certain groups of people as a loaf of bakers, a bobbin of tailors, and a rejection of writers? On second thought, maybe that should be a success of writers. Yes, that's much better.

Hopefully the Oxford English editors will see the light and add these to the next Shorter edition. In the meantime though, they can send out little sticky labels so you can paste them onto the pages of the one you're about to receive as a Christmas gift and make sure it's up to date. After all, you wouldn't want to have 14.5 lbs of dictionary sitting around holding the porch door open and not know that the new collective noun is an anal of editors, would you?

More Mad Dog can be found online at: His compilation of humorous travel columns, "If It's Such a Small World Then Why Have I Been Sitting on This Airplane For Twelve Hours?" is available from Xlibris Corporation. Email:

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