Today in New Delhi, India
Dec 14, 2018-Friday
New Delhi
  • Humidity
  • Wind

The English language and a set of pleasing discoveries

From a petrichor to a vagitus, from an askhole to a nonversation, English is an ever evolving language

columns Updated: Jun 16, 2018 16:35 IST
English language,Krishnan Srinivasan,Petrichor
One of the most pleasing discoveries is that there are words for things that I thought had no name whatsoever(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Did you know that the English language has no words that rhyme with month, orange, silver and purple? Were you aware that hungry and angry are the only words that end with ‘gry’ and dreamt is the only one that ends with ‘mt’? Indeed, did you realise that the least used letter is ‘q’, while the most common is ‘I’?

Of course, none of this matters but it is fun to know. It was brought to my attention by my friend Krishnan Srinivasan, a former foreign secretary, who must have spent hours on the Internet digging this out. His efforts have made me realise what a cornucopia of joyously irrelevant information the Net can be. Today I want to share some of the serendipitous findings that a variety of friends have forwarded to me.

One of the most pleasing discoveries is that there are words for things that I thought had no name whatsoever. For instance, did you know that the goodly smell of rain on dry ground is called ‘petrichor’ or that the plastic or metallic coating at the end of your shoelaces is called an ‘aglet’? For those of you who are fond of a drop or two, the wire cage that holds the cork in a bottle of champagne is called an ‘agraffe’. And when you are hungry the rumble in your tummy is a ‘wamble’, while the cry of a newborn baby is a ‘vagitus’. Finally, the dot over an ‘i’ or ‘j’ is called a ‘tittle’.

However, it’s not just fascinating new words that the Net has to offer, it can also suggest words for things that ought to have a name but don’t. For example, a person who repeatedly makes mistakes could be called an ‘errorist’. A person who constantly asks for advice but does the opposite of what you suggest might be termed an ‘askhole’. While a completely worthless conversation —and don’t all of us have them? —is best described as a ‘nonversation’.

Indeed, there are also words that have altogether passed out of usage but which remain perfectly relevant and could be gainfully restored. For instance, there’s the 18th century Scottish word ‘groke’ for the way someone shamelessly stares at you when you are eating in the hope you will share it with them. Or the 16th century term ‘twattling’ which means to gossip idly about unimportant things. Even if it’s a bit of a tongue-twister, the 19th century word ‘ultracrepidarian’ is a useful noun for someone who gives opinions on subjects they know nothing about. However, for us in India a second 19th century word could be more useful: ‘kakistocracy’ which means government by the least qualified or worst people.

But I had most fun when I came across examples of how delightfully the English can use their language. Here are some of the comments made on the appraisal forms of British civil servants as, allegedly, published by The Guardian: ‘His men would follow him anywhere but only out of curiosity’; ‘This officer should go far; and the sooner the better’: ‘Since my last report he has reached rock bottom and has now started to dig’; ‘If you give him a penny for his thoughts you would get change’; ‘He sets low personal standards and then consistently fails to achieve them’ and ‘This man is depriving a village somewhere of an idiot’. But can anyone beat this comment: ‘Some drink from the fountain of knowledge: he only gargled’?

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Jun 16, 2018 16:31 IST