At Home With Jeff: What is the word?

Martinez News-Gazette Columnist

Vivian, her sister, our niece and daughter
Vivian, her sister, our niece and daughter

Vivian and I were hiking on Mt Diablo last Saturday with family visiting from out of town. The weather was perfect. Wildflowers were in bloom. As we hiked along, the kids and I started playing the game Word Family. “Words that start with the letters pt,” my daughter challenged. “Pterodactyl!” one answered back. “Ptomaine!” I chimed in. “Words that start with meta,” called out my niece. “Metaphysics! Metabolic!” the responses echoed between huge boulders as we were clambering.

The game continued for over an hour without repeating words. It would have continued a lot longer if we hadn’t stopped for lunch. There were certainly a lot of words from which to choose. It has been said that the English language has more vocabulary than any other. That is because the English got run over a lot. The Celts got conquered by the Romans who got conquered by the Saxons who got conquered by the Normans. Then came the Black Plague and a Hundred Years’ War with France. No wonder our language is so tortured!

English has absorbed words from around the world. British ships sailed the seven seas to bring back exotic foods, music, art, architecture, and vocabulary. From India, we have loot, bangle, juggernaut, jungle, and punch. From China, we inherited ketchup, chow, ginseng, tofu, and typhoon. Now, in 2018, you and I have the largest vocabulary on earth.

Some words have special meaning to me. “Sparkle” reminds me of a crow in the 1982 cartoon Secret of NIHM. Dom DeLuise provided the voice. This crow could not resist “Sparkle” no matter what the cost. In the end, it almost did him in.

The word “Often” takes me right to a scene in Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert & Sullivan. To escape, the pirates claim to be “orphans” “often,” which caused a lot of confusion on stage because these words sound the same with a pirate accent. It finally ends when the general shouts ”Stop! I think I see where we are getting confused. When you said “orphan”, did you mean “orphan” – a person who has lost his parents, or “often”, frequently?”

The word “Mine” reminds me of a scene in the movie Finding Nemo. All the seagulls sound like people saying “mine.” It is uncanny when I visit the beach in Santa Cruz and hear real-life seagulls saying “mine.”

That reminds me of a joke. At a funeral, a friend of the widow asks, “May I say a word?” She answers, “Please do.” The man stands, clears his throat, and says, “Plethora.” The widow replies, “Thank you, that means a lot.”

All of these words remind me of Mrs. Warren, my sophomore English teacher. Hers was the hardest class I took at Soquel High. We learned 100 new words a week, wrote a diary every day, and crammed 1,100 years of English literature into one semester. There was a quiz every Friday, a mid-term and a final on everything from Beowulf to Rudyard Kipling, plus an oral presentation. A grade of B- was the best I could do in her class. At the time, I dreaded her daily lectures that had way more information than my teenage mind could absorb. I learned more from Mrs. Warren than all my other English teachers combined. To this day, I can repeat from memory the Highwayman by Alfred Noyes.

This abundance of vocabulary makes English the perfect language to use for games like Word Family. Two years ago, our friends introduced us to a new board game called Balderdash. Six players took turns making up definitions for obscure words. In each round, five of the definitions were balderdash (nonsense) and one was true. The challenge was to decide which was a correct definition We didn’t know our friends were such good liars! Can I ever trust what they say? My daughter enjoyed playing Balderdash but complained later that she could not make use of the new words because she had learned all the definitions — phony and real.

Another game we like is Scattergories. You start with 10 categories like a country, a movie, a body part, an actor, etc. Then you randomly pick a letter of the alphabet. Each player has two minutes to write down items in each category that begin with that letter. Can you think of an automobile whose name starts with P or a movie that starts with Q? For the game-challenged, there are lists online for free download.

Our favorite game when camping is Boggle. There are sixteen alphabet dice in a 4×4 grid. After they are shaken up, players have three minutes to find as many words as they can in the grid. The letters must be adjoining and contain at least three letters. No letter cube may be used more than once in a word. You would be surprised how many words I can find after years of practice. I have seen our kids produce more than 30 in three minutes! I used to have the upper hand but now struggle to keep up. That is what happens when you send them away to college — they come back and beat you at Boggle.

I predict that the popularity of these games will increase just like our language. English is growing every day. Merriam Webster added more than 1,000 new words to our lexicon last year. One new word is a combination of two words: glamorous and camping. “Glamping” describes the joy of staying in the great outdoors with amenities like gourmet cooking and indoor plumbing. I love the combo words to describe new dog breeds like “Yorkie-poo,” “schnoodle,” and “chiweenie” (a cross between a Chihuahua and a dachshund).

Many new words describe foods. “Kabocha,” is a Japanese pumpkin and “kombucha,” a fermented and effervescent tea drink. That sounds like something I need to try.

Before I do that, I want to add to my vocabulary in preparation for our next hike, like a word that rhymes with pterodactyl.

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