Do you know all the words in English?

25th May 2022

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In a word: no. As an English language teacher I have been asked this question a few times by my younger learners. I love words, especially English words (I know I am biased but it is my mother tongue and teaching it is what I do every day!) and although I am surrounded by the language, it still never ceases to surprise me when I come across a word or phrase that I have never heard or seen before. Not because I think I should know it already, but it is more a feeling that I have the opportunity to learn something new and that I can share that word with someone. It will also mean that I can give something the correct label and say precisely what I mean, without needing to paraphrase.

The word can appear in a fleeting comment, during a conversation or on an advertising flyer, in a magazine or an online source - anywhere really. One of my favourite new words is ‘firmament’* - this was a total revelation to me as I am sure I had never heard of it before. I came a cross it a fiction novel I had been reading. Another word which I know, but wouldn’t actively use (although I will from now on), is ‘latterly’**. I heard it latterly in a talk about the local landscape in this area. The problem sometimes though is that I know I will very likely forget the word if I don’t write it down somewhere, particularly if I just heard the word as opposed to seeing it in a book or source I can go back to.

If you are learning a language, research shows that you need to have a come across a new word around 7 times before it goes to your long-term memory. I guess that figure depends on the individual, how good you are at remembering words and whether you have learnt more that one foreign language (they say it gets easier to learn a second or third language).

Words say so much about us and ultimately they are the tools that allow us to express ourselves. The beauty of English is that there are so many words that ‘mean the same’ but actually, of course, have different nuances and shades of meaning, so choose wisely!

The final word, or words actually, in this post must go to a person I truly admire and who has an awe-inspiring and enviable knowledge of the English Language: Stephen Fry.

'The way you speak is who you are and the tones of your voice and the tricks of your emailing and tweeting and letter-writing, can be recognised unmistakably in the minds of those who know and love you.' from BBC2’s documentary Fry’s Planet Word.

* firmament means the sky or heavens.
** latterly is another way of saying recently