Pogo, Podiums, and Pharaohs

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October 16, 2018 by libroshombre

“Polyphiloprogenitive” was a good descriptor for Walt Kelly, the Pogo comic strip creator, poet, and political satirist, especially when it comes to language. It’s a term first credited to the poet T.S. Eliot that means “extremely prolific” and few have cobbled words and phrases together better than Mr. Kelly. For example, in his Okefenokee Swamp cartoon world, “reciprovocation” meant “the spites of life,” and when Pogo got depressed and said, “Things getting so humane ‘round this swamp, us folks will have to take up eatin’ Mud Turkles,” his pal Churchy, a turtle, exclaims, “Horroars! A cannibobble!”

Pogo’s charm is diminished for those who’ve never read his daily adventures and can’t get Kelly’s multitude of cultural allusions. This came to mind recently when reading an Economist.com article titled, “Hunting for Fossils in the Quirks of Language” that said “at the Economist’s headquarters in London there is a sign reading ‘By the Lifts’; under it are pinned assorted memos and news reports. There are no lifts nearby. Only those of us familiar with the newspaper’s history understand the allusion: such clippings were displayed near the lifts in our previous HQ. Similarly, departments of the paper continue to call themselves ‘12th floor’ and ‘13th floor’, even though they now share the same (sixth) floor in the new building … That ‘13th floor’ is what is sometimes called an ‘anachronym’: a name that no longer makes sense because the underlying facts have changed while the language has not.”

That shouldn’t be confused with “anacronym,” defined by OxfordDictionaries.com as an “acronym of which the constituent letters are taken from words that are unfamiliar to most people (e.g. Nicam, scuba).” Nor is it a “retronym,” which is a “new term created from an existing word in order to distinguish it from the meaning that has emerged through progress or technological development (e.g., cloth diaper is a retronym necessitated by the fact that diaper now more commonly refers to a disposable diaper).” Similarly, you can’t refer to a mere “guitar” without clarification despite guitar prototypesdating back 3,300 years. The advent of the electric guitar in 1931 necessitated distinguishing between electric and acoustic versions, and the simple term “book” is incomplete now that it can come in print, audio, or e-book.

Some words are in the process of becoming retro, like “podium” and “lectern.” Technically, speakers stand on podiums and behind lecterns. Now the terms are increasingly being used interchangeably, and the Oxford English Dictionary says it’s especially prevalent in North America as a form of “extended misuse” that’s leading to our blending them into a single meaning. Nonetheless, losing the distinction between the two diminishes our language’s flexibility a smidgen, and having a broad descriptive vocabulary’s an important life skill.

The larger your storehouse of words, the more precisely and effectively you can communicate. But how many English words should you possess? Paul Nation, a respected linguistics professor and developer of the Vocabulary Size Test (VST), says that in learning a language, familiarity with 6,000-7,000 word families is enough for adequate listening, 8,000-9,000 gives a decent reading vocabulary, and 20,000 provides a robust “native speaker” vocabulary. “Word families,” Nations wrote, “means that words such as ‘nation,’ ‘national,’ ‘nationalize,’ and ‘international’ are all considered to be members of the same family.” By focusing on the number of word families readers know, his VLT test can extrapolate how many words they know overall.

You can take Nation’s test and find out the breadth of your word storehouse for free at My.VocabularySize.com. There you can also bear witness to his excellent recommendations for how to grow your vocabulary: “read as much as possible,” and, since re-reading words you already know doesn’t help, “really challenge yourself with difficult reading material” that contains new words and concepts.

I wonder what Horemheb, one of my progenitors, would think of the shifting sands of language since he trained as a scribe, who were proto-librarians, and therefore had to master the enormous hieroglyphic vocabulary. Horemheb was the last pharaoh of Egypt’s 18th dynasty, around 1300 BCE. Before that he was King Tut’s greatest general, but throughout his storied career, he remained a devotee of Thoth, the Egyptian god of writing, and a champion of reading.



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