Tag Archive | vocabulary

Unexpectedly Afoot

Once in a while, a TV commercial stays with me. More often than not, I’m sorry to admit, it’s because the commercial gets on my nerves.


When I tell you which commercial is annoying me the most these days, you might be surprised! I am a big fan of poetry, and one of my favorite American poets is Walt Whitman. So, you might expect that I would LOVE the Volvo S90 commercial that features an excerpt from Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road.” Quite the contrary! The first time I saw the commercial, it irked me—and I couldn’t figure out why. However, after seeing it multiple times in an hour of TV-watching, I soon realized the problem: the very first word of the commercial!


I do have a penchant for words that have a storied history but are not in frequent use in English these days, and the commercial’s first word, “afoot,” is one such word. Volvo begins advertising its luxury sedan with the same words that begin Whitman’s poem: “Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road.” A lovely sentiment! Lovely, though, for a person who is walking—not so desirable for one who expects to be driving a luxury sedan. “Afoot,” of course, means “on foot.” If one is driving the Volvo S90 while simultaneously afoot, perhaps the car pictured in the commercial should look more like this:




I somehow doubt that this is the image that Volvo intended to conjure up in the minds of the ad’s audience!


Unity of message in word and image is pretty important, isn’t it?


If you know someone who works at Volvo Car Corporation, feel free to pass along my card. I’ll be happy to review their future advertising campaigns before they launch!




Create-a-Word Day

Over the past few days, we’ve thought a lot about new words that have been added to English through the years. So that we can make our own contributions (albeit unofficial contributions) to English vocabulary, I hereby decree that today is Create-a-Word Day!

I challenge you to caption this photo, including in your caption at least one word that you create. It can be an amalgamation of existing words (in English or other languages) or any type of word creation that strikes your fancy!

I’m sure that for those who live in the Northeast, this photo will get the creative juices flowing as it inspires you to think about our upcoming spring snow event.

snow flowers


Playing with words

alphabet soup

If William Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, and the general public can invent words, why can’t you?

You CAN!

I most often notice the need for new words when I’m playing Words With Friends. Of course, my words might never officially be welcomed into the English language or into the pantheon of words accepted in Words With Friends or Scrabble; still, I don’t let that stop me from creating words!

Here’s a fun, step-by-step guide to creating your own words.

Grab your Scrabble tiles or alphabet soup, and start creating!

*CAVEAT: It is appropriate to use newly-created, “unofficial” words only in certain contexts. You might be able to safely experiment with new words in creative writing, casual conversations, text messages, informal emails, and personal social media posts. Academic writing and business communications are probably not the best venues in which to test-run a new word.

When English vocabulary isn’t adequate

The English language includes many fantastic words, and this is because of the efforts that millions of people have made over hundreds of years to express ideas clearly and creatively.

When we compare our native language with other languages, though, we sometimes realize areas in which our native language could use some improvement.

It’s hard to know what we’re missing if we don’t even know some of the interesting features of the vocabulary of other languages. I think that you’ll enjoy this article about interesting words around the world: words that, in just a few syllables, describe a thing, idea, or emotion that we can describe only after a clunky phrase or two.

And what can we, individually, do about English vocabulary’s shortcomings?

You’ll have to wait until tomorrow to find out.

callout bubble

“He chortled in his joy”

We have the captioning permanently visible on our TV. It does get a little bit distracting sometimes, I’ll admit. But it also sometimes adds a fascinating dimension to my television-based diversion.

Last week, I was watching “Who Wants to Be a Millionnaire.” A young man was considering the four choices before him. While pondering his options, he let out a low chuckle. If I had given it any thought, I would have expected the caption to read “LAUGHS,” or maybe even “LAUGHS QUIETLY” or “CHUCKLES.” Instead, to my disbelief and delight, the caption read “CHORTLES.” CHORTLES! Who uses that word on a regular basis? More importantly, does anyone ever think of himself or herself chortling? My goodness! What careful perception and creativity the captioner showed with this choice!

From my school play and community theater experience, which led me to sing at least two versions of the “Jabberwocky” song, I know that Lewis Carroll, author of the Alice books, invented the word “chortled.” And he invented many other words, too. Learn more about his inventive use of English here.

Since Carroll was describing a world of the imagination, it’s not surprising that he had to invent words to express the realities that Alice encountered when she went through the looking glass. However, I must admit that even in our very real world, I have done my share of galumphing and I have known several mimsy, slithy, and snarky characters. Has Carroll’s fantasy become our reality?

Alice with pansies

Shakespearean contributions

My students often explain to me that the reason that Shakespeare’s writing is somewhat challenging to understand is that he wrote in “Old English.” They are skeptical, incredulous, nay, even horrified when I tell them that he wrote not in Old English, nor even Middle English, but Modern English! Now, of course, Shakespeare’s Modern English was early Modern English—but it was Modern English, nonetheless. By Shakespeare’s time, the Great Vowel Shift was well underway, and the Germanic elements of English (brought by the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes) had melded with native Celtic elements, and the Latinate elements that made their way to England via the Norman Conquest had thoroughly permeated the language.

Printing came to England less than a century before Shakespeare’s birth, and until William Caxton, who brought the printing press to England, encountered the problem of the lack of standardization in punctuation, spelling, and other language-related issues, no one had worried too much about these things. The standardization of English was still being worked out during Shakespeare’s lifetime, and the creative bard took full advantage of the situation, coining not only phrases that we still use today but even words! Some of Shakespeare’s greatest to our language are only two syllables long!

Just imagine being in the audience at the Globe Theatre and hearing, for the first time, the words listed in this article. Would you have thought that they’d become staples of the language and remain in common parlance for centuries to come?