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Words and Play: The Delights of Language

Jeff Minick

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Like spices in our recipes, language can liven up our senses.

In his blurb to Willard R. Espy’s “An Almanac of Words at Play,” writer and once longtime host of television’s “Masterpiece Theater” Alistair Cooke tells readers: “To Willard Espy, the English language is what football is to Joe Namath, a golf ball to Arnold Palmer, the male of the species to Zza Zza Gabor: a wonderful object to manipulate, to flog, to coax and have a barrel of fun with.”



William-R_Espy-An- Almanac-of-Words-at Play
Willard Espy’s book is a marvelous comedic collection of words.



Though “Words at Play” is regrettably out of print, in his marvelous comedic collection Espy created “a three ring circus of words: words clowning; words walking tightropes; words venturing their heads into the mouths of lions; words cleaning up after the elephants.” As Espy also pointed out in his Introduction, his was a “lifelong passion for words.”

Whatever our political alliances, most of us would agree that America today is sailing through rough seas and dire straits. The apparently never-ending pandemic, our squabbles over the efficacy of the vaccine, the rise in the cost of gasoline and groceries, the debacle in Afghanistan: Each day brings us more bad news. Grim and glum are two adjectives that may describe our journey at the moment.

Every once in a while, however, we just need a break from all this unhappiness.

Let me suggest going to a three-ring circus of language.

Come on. My treat. I’ll even throw in bags of popcorn and Cracker Jacks stuffed with words.




Willard Espy’s book contains a three-ring circus of words. Advertisement for the Barnum & Bailey Circus, 1900, Library of Congress. (Public Domain)



Our Wonderful Wealth of Words

English is a language rich in words. It grew from a combination of Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and French, has constantly adopted words from other languages like the Spanish “taco” and the Indian “shampoo,” and for decades has taken under its wing all sorts of terms from the world of technology, like “Internet” and “Google.” Depending on which source we investigate online, we possess between 500,000 and a million words at our command.

Yet most English-speaking adults have an average vocabulary range of 20,000–35,000 words, a limitation that in many ways makes perfect sense. His friends will understand the man who says “I love my evening glass of wine,” but were he to say “I love my vespertine glass of wine,” they might wonder about his sanity or his health. The woman who tells her sister that her love for the novels of Jane Austen is “sempiternal” may receive in response a cocked eyebrow and a puzzled frown.

Language is about communication, and so teachers of composition, editors, and others usually recommend the straight-up delivery of vocabulary and sentences. Whether we’re writing a high school essay or an online blog, we bring short, familiar words to the batter’s box if we wish to attract readers and avoid sounding pretentious.

The Sheer Fun of Language

Yet a long or idiosyncratic English locution can gladden our hearts and tickle our funny bones.

To blast someone as a malapert, for example—that is, as brazen or impudently bold—is a wonder to the tongue and ear, though perhaps incomprehensible to the person so addressed. To mention that a hot-tempered woman is a virago may bring approving nods at a party with no one understanding what the word means.

Suppose you are out for drinks with friends when a political discussion arises. The conversation turns heated, but then you suddenly throw cold water over these fires by saying, “I think everything is the fault of our kakistocracy.” The fiery flames turn to embers, and finally someone asks, “What’s that supposed to mean?” “Oh, that,” you say. “Well, a kakistocracy means government by the worst of our citizens. The least competent.”



friends laughing at meeting
Throw out an unknown word in a heated moment and see if that doesn’t break the tension. (fizkes/Shutterstock)



You’ve ended what might have become a disastrous shouting match while your companions contemplate your intelligence, the meaning of the word, and the application of the term across all boundaries of politics.

More Elongated Enchantments

Like Willard Espy, Australian lexicographer and educator Peter Bowler gave readers delight and laughter in books like “The Superior Person’s Book of Words.” He took obscure or obsolete English words, defined them, and then provided examples of how we might use them in everyday life. Here are just a few of Bowler’s entertainments:

Limaceous: Sluglike, having to do with slugs. ‘Keep your hands to yourself, you limaceous endomorph!’

Gynaeceum: Women’s apartment in an ancient Greek or Roman house or other building. A nicely high-flown, whilst slightly deprecatory, way to refer to your sister’s bedroom.

Oleaginous: Oily. The personal manner of actors appearing in television commercials for banks and finance companies.

Bedizen: To trick out; to decorate, ornament, or dress up with more ostentation than fashion. When Lady Festering makes her ceremonial entry at the charity ball, wearing her Christmas Tree Dress, you whisper to your companion: ‘I’m told she goes to a professional bedizener.’

Rugose: Corrugated with wrinkles. ‘Ah, Mrs. Sandalbath, there must be many a woman half your age with a complexion not nearly as rugose as yours.’

Pomposity: A Thumb’s Down

Of course, we can also poke fun at those who deck out the language in fancy dress. Bureaucrats and school administrators, for instance, often issue memoranda that seem like gobbledygook to most readers. Richard Mitchell, founder of “The Underground Grammarian,” would, 40 years ago, take these bombastic authorities to task for passages such as this one about a “certain St. Mary Littell”:

“To facilitate the process, St. Mary utilized the Hoover Grid which begins with the recognition of purposes and values, leading to goals, objectives, and finally to implementation. The first and most important step is at the myth level where the renewal of ideals, hopes, dreams and traditions takes place. It is the level of identity and purpose for being.”

Most of us reading these words have no idea of their meaning.

In their book “Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates: Using Philosophy (and Jokes) to Explore Life, Death, the Afterlife, and Everything in Between,” Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein end with this jest about the philosopher and his highfalutin language, which points to this same problem of incomprehension:           

So Heidegger and a hippo stroll up to the Pearly Gates and St. Peter says, “Listen, we’ve only got room for one more today. So whoever of the two of you gives me the best answer to the question, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ gets to come in.”

And Heidegger says, “To think Being itself explicitly requires disregarding being to the extent that it is only grounded and interpreted in terms of beings and for beings, as in all metaphysics.”

But before the hippo can grunt one word, St. Peter says to him, “Today’s your lucky day, Hippy!”

In the Gymnasium of Jests and Joy

A few months ago, I subscribed to the “Word of the Day” from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary Company. Every morning a “Word of the Day” notification appears in my email. I rarely open that email right away but instead wait until later, when discouraged by the news of the world or by some happenstance in my own life, I need to take a break. I enter that site, that gymnasium of language, and read all about the word of the day, its meaning, usage, and history, and often play one of the games the site offers. The 10 minutes or so I spend there playing around with words help restore my spirits and whet my taste for our language.

On that same site are many reminders of the origins of our language. Today’s word of the day, for example, was “cryptic,” and the short history of the word tells me that it derives from the ancient Greek “kryptein,” meaning “to conceal or cover.” The authors then give other related words and their meanings.

Most of us are so accustomed to language, to everything from ordinary conversations with friends to advertisements and television shows, that we forget the miracle of our native tongue and of language in general. We forget that so much of culture and art depend on thoughts expressed in writing and speech, from the novels of Charles Dickens to the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, from the nursery rhymes we recite to our little ones to the Gettysburg Address.

And sometimes we may also forget how language can provide a playground for the delight of our imaginations. My dad delivered one of the first jokes I can recollect hearing, one that depended on word play: “Have you heard of the upside down man?” he asked me. When I shook my head, he said, “His nose runs and his feet smell.”

Sure, it was a corny joke, old as the hills. But that upside down man, and that upside down language, first made me aware of the circus of words and the fun that could be had there.