Can I have a word?

18Aug13

There are not enough words.

In 1972, the band ‘America’ had a hit with a song called “A Horse with No Name”. The song describes a horse ride through a desert. Not only does the horse not have a name but the descriptions of what’s in the desert are pretty vague as well, “there were plants, and birds, and rocks, and things”. Ok, I know unless you’re a botanist, ornithologist or geologist you might not know the names of all of the “things” you see but come on, coming up with a name for a horse, as long as you know it’s gender, wouldn’t be that difficult.

At least horse riders can call their mount a ‘horse’. If you ride cattle through the desert, you’re in all sorts of trouble. The word ‘cattle’ can only be used in the plural. You can refer to “three cattle” or “some cattle”, but not “one cattle”. No singular form of “cattle” exists in the English language and there is no non-gender specific name for them either. We call them cows or bulls but there are cow and bull elephants, alligators, camels, dolphin, elk, gnu, seal, shark, walrus, whale, Hippopotamus, Rhinoceros, reindeer and moose.

They’re not the only victims of the great word shortage. There are no names for lots of everyday items. We have to make do with clunky descriptions of what they do instead, like “deep fat fryer”, “hair dryer” or “washing machine”. Thank goodness the word aeroplane came along or you’d be going on holiday in a ‘flying machine’.

The daft thing is there are loads of words for things that we never use. I’m pretty sure there’s a word for every kind of phobia. Last week Jeremy Paxman reminded us that the fear of beards is called pogonophobia. Why is it that phobias get a name but machines that wash, vend or sew, don’t?

On BBC Radio Oxford this week, I spoke to the Senior Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, Fiona McPherson. I was disappointed to find out that instead of sorting out the problem of the “great word shortage”, they’ve been wasting their time giving an alternative meaning to the word, ‘literally’. From now on, you can use the word ‘literally’ to describe things metaphorically. For instance, up until the change, when a sportsman described himself as being ‘literally’ on fire they were incorrect unless they’d actually experienced spontaneous combustion. Now they can be “literally” on fire but without any substances combining chemically with oxygen to give out bright light, heat, and smoke.

I’m wondering if the horse in the song suffered from alopecia. There could have been a typo in the lyrics and the song should have been called “a horse with no mane”.

Mind you, if they said the horse literally had no hair, how could you be sure?

Craic on!

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