I read something the other day that set me back on my heels for a bit. According to a blurb in my (admittedly old) marketing research textbook, there are about 600,000 words in the English language, but 50 words account for 40 percent of usage. Further 16,000 words account for 99 percent of usage. (p.409) 50 words = 40 percent of usage? And 99 percent of our word usage is accounted for by only 2.7% of available words? I don’t know whether to feel sad or hopeful.
Certainly, these statistics stir feelings of melancholy in me because they highlight a vast, forgone linguistic opportunity. Somehow, we are limiting our field of expression in order to facilitate convenience, expedience, or perhaps simply laziness. It’s no wonder so many of the things I read seem like jargon to me–words and expressions deriving meaning from cultural reference rather than intrinsic definition. If you don’t believe me, try reading marketing materials from a broad smattering of companies and industries. Chances are, you’ll find them eerily similar, though the products and services they represent may vastly differ.
On the other hand, I see the remaining 97.3% of neglected vocabulary in our collective lexicon as a tremendous opportunity, and that excites me. Think of all the untapped words and expressions I can use to color my communication. Personally or professionally, I can set myself apart by creating a richer experience for people on the receiving end of my conversations. I can paint pictures with words that are clear, vibrant, and unique. I should never be at a loss for words to describe a concept; there are, according to the quote above, at least 584,000 that I probably haven’t even considered using.
Seriously, while the number of words in our language may seem formidable, the total number of permutations of those words created to form unique expressions is close to limitless. My marketing materials, my reports, my communications have the potential to stand far above others, provided I free myself from the jargon and thoughtfully use the full set of language tools at hand.
When I consider the statistics, I should never be at a loss for words.