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Letters and Words

By Chuck Clegg - | Jan 27, 2021

I would guess that very few of you reading my story can identify the following word, Zaftig. By chance, I discovered it is the first word in the section of the dictionary that begins with the letter “Z.” For those who may not know, it is Yiddish slang. Having a full figure: said of a woman. You have now learned a Yiddish word appearing in an English dictionary. Be careful if you say it to the wrong person, you may have your face slapped.

If I were to ask, “What spoken language is the most used in the world today?” I believe most people would probably answer English. You may be surprised to learn the leader is by far, Mandarin. It is spoken by over fourteen percent of the world’s population. Spanish is second with nearly six percent, and in third place is English – spoken by five and one-half percent.

The English language was first spoken in medieval Great Britain and it did not happen overnight. In fact, it is said to have taken nearly fourteen hundred years to develop into the language we speak today. After studying our language, I began to wonder how a word representing a thing or object came about. Perhaps literary scholars of the time walked around searching for unnamed objects? When they found something, did they arbitrarily give it a name? Can you just see it, an old English teacher walking through Sherwood Forrest in the early fourteenth century. As he went along, he tripped on an object laying in his path. The scholar blurted out angrily at the object, “Who put that darn.” He suddenly stopped realizing the object he tripped over had not yet been named. The scholarly teacher jumped on the chance to name his discovery. He picked up the object and looked it over. After a few minutes studying his discovery he said, “I shall call you “Rock.” He then laid it on the ground and wrote in his book of new words, Rock. Two weeks later, another scholar came along the same path and tripped over the same object. Not knowing that it had already been given a name by another scholar, he decided to call it, “Stone.” After naming the stone, he kicked it off the path and said, “A Rolling Stone.” Now, I realize my example is a little far-fetched, but still, someone had to be the first to name a stone. Why couldn’t it have happened just as I have told it to you? Maybe even the second scholar’s name was, Friar Richards. His given name is Keith Richards. Friar Keith of the Rolling Stones.” Can you believe this stuff is inside my head?

Looking through the dictionary I came to the section with words that begin with the letter “Z.” Words that begin with the letter “Z” are not commonly used words. When was the last time you said zebra or zero? How about zesty or zing? Do you know why the masked avenger, Zorro, starts with the letter “Z?” You may think it is because his signature slash with a sword is to make the letter “Z.” If you think about it, almost any other letter when slashed would make a weird mark. If he had made a circle with his sword, he may have been named “Oreo.” Not very dashing for a masked hero. By the way, Zorro is the Spanish word for Fox.

Each year, there are people who are in charge of adding new words to the dictionary. They study words used on social pages and in the news. Next, they determine if the word is making an impact on society. After review, words are chosen to be added to the dictionary and then become a recognized word. In 2017, two of the words added were Permadeath and Seussian. Permadeath means a character in a video game that has been killed and cannot return. Like we really need a word for that. And the word Seussian means something associated with the works of Dr. Seuss. I always thought Dr. Seuss’ works pretty much spoke for themselves.

Last year, the dictionaries of the world added over a thousand words. In total, there are over a quarter million in our language, and that does not include variations used for technical terms. I’ll bet by now you are wondering why all this fuss about words? The truth is, the history of mankind mirrors the advancement of language. The ability to communicate and document our knowledge with words is key to everything we have learned in the past, today, and in the future. The spread of religion, commerce and cultures followed languages’ development. The intellect of mankind can be found in words we speak and write. I have a hard time believing we needed to add Permadeath to enhance our intellect. Maybe there is still an old scholar, lost in Sherwood Forrest, discovering dead video game characters and adding them to the dictionary.

Today, we take our written words and languages for granted. We often give very little credit to the simple words that guide us through each day. The next time you go shopping, take a moment to count the number of times you read words. The signs that tell which aisle has crackers or peanut butter. Which brand of soup has the lowest salt content. Our eyes are constantly scanning words that surround us each day. Understanding words gives us the ability to find our way in an ever-changing world.

I wonder, if the stone kicked by Friar Keith had moss on it, would he have said, “A rolling stone gathers no moss as it moves Through the Lens?”