Sounds of the Mouth

Powerful are the sounds we make with our mouths and attach meaning to. Captain Obvious states we usually refer to these sounds as words.

With words we marry our spouses; we communicate good & evil; we convey emotions; we sentence criminals and exonerate the innocent; we teach children to tell of their needs and desires and frustrations; we form bonds with strangers, turning them into friends.  Later this month, a new President of the United States will be sworn-in after uttering 35 words. Words are powerful.

I have always loved words. To this day I make mental notes of new words, sometimes even making actual notes of them. When I was younger, before the age of smart phones, an intriguing new word would cause me to put down a good book and haul out the thick dictionary off my parents’ bookshelf. Then suddenly a new precise meaning of an utterance would be added to my vocabulary. And I would feel just a tinge more confident the next time I had to write an essay in school. One word I learned by doing this was temerity. Another was inebriate.

We are told a story in a reliable book that the world came about through words. Disaster then came upon the world through a man & woman acting on deceptive words. This same book tells how so many languages came to be on the planet. With origins in the ancient city of Babel, one common tongue became many and ever since people have congregated around others of common sounds. This same book states that for those condemned in the hereafter, one’s words will be used in the sentencing.

My dad taught me that any vocal expression with meaning attached to it, that is also recognized and used by everyone else in our world, can qualify as a word. The same goes for written words which are nothing more than recognizable straight and curved lines on a screen or page.

Words mean things. That simple yet interesting thought is not an original statement of mine. I regularly hear it said on the radio. We are casual and flippant with words but words have meaning. Everyone would accept a ticket to the Super Bowl but no one wants a ticket from a traffic cop. It is unfortunate that particularly good words are sometimes arrested and lose their original meaning (ie: gay). Other words transition from having multiple meanings to having only a specific meaning (ie: diet). And yet other words, like, are used so often, you know, like, we don’t even know that, like, we use them (ie: like).

There are over 250,000 words in the English language. It’s estimated that most of us use 30,000 of them, though we know roughly 60,000, so says the Internet. We should ask ourselves, “why not use the others?” I read a fascinating book a few years ago about how the Oxford English Dictionary came to be. It was the first formal compilation of words in the English language. The book is called The Professor and the Madman.

The two great wordsmiths who come to mind are Mark Twain and Shakespeare. The former I greatly respect. The latter is over my head. These two were masters in their day at organizing words in different ways. I guess that’s what makes one a good writer.

Offensive words. I heard a psychologist point out that nearly every swear word in every culture has something to do with bodily functions or a deity. Huh.

There’s a proper way to write in all civilized cultures … and surely this article violates some of the rules in ours.

Many words aren’t spelled as they sound. This really dawned on me when my children were first learning to write. Kids spell phonetically — and I’m sure why we don’t. But English is complicated for the modern world. For instance, as a middle school student writing a paper, I searched that dusty ol’ dictionary on my parents’ shelf for 10 minutes for the correct spelling of “beautiful.” How come it wasn’t listed on the page with the “bu’s”?!

We have confusing words that sound the same but mean something completely different. Some homonyms that come to mind are: blue/blew; their/there; to/too/two; air/heir; live/live.

Here are a few of my favorite words in no particular order, except for the first. They stick out to me because of what they convey, not necessarily because of their alliteration:
passion, arcane, oxymoron, proportional, comprehend, parameter, distinction, paradigm, depiction, keen, thesaurus.

Because of the alliteration, some of my least favorite words are: vomit, elongate, congeal, puss, forlorn.

If you are still reading, go ahead a post a few of your favorite and hated-words in the comment section below. jrw


2 thoughts on “Sounds of the Mouth

  1. Marty

    Another thought provoking well written article Jon. The five biggies that bug me are moist, calories, bungalow, just saying, and twinkie.


  2. Fred Lindstrom

    Good one, Jon. Of many phrases on my “hate” list are: gone viral, at the end of the day, how do you feel right now? (usually asked by a cooky reporter after someone just won the Super Bowl or Gold medal). A phrase I like to say is “cellar door.” Goodnite.
    Unc Fred


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