Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 76.djvu/348

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344
THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY
THE GROWTH OF A LANGUAGE
By Dr. CHARLES W. SUPER
ATHENS, O.

WE now and then come across the statement that Shakespeare uses about fifteen thousand words and that he is the most copious writer in the English language in the matter of vocabulary. It is not difficult to count the number of words in an author after they have been registered in a concordance, but the statement as to Shakespeare's copiousness is misleading if not positively erroneous. It is safe to affirm that Sir Walter Scott employs more words since he has written upon a larger number of subjects. The same statement may also be made of Mr. Gladstone and of others. Besides, the mere number of different words used by an author is no test of his mental capacity, since the same word may have several different meanings and he have occasion to employ it in but one or two. "A bad case," for example, means one thing to a lawyer, another to a physician, still another to the moralist, while "case" unqualified has several more significations according to the context. It is easy to select one thousand words in any large dictionary that have five thousand different meanings. The radical sense of a word is a sort of stem from which all kinds of derivations shoot forth, or upon which they are grafted. Some of these, when used in certain cases or in a figurative sense, have only a remote relation to the original. "Case" in grammar is a good illustration. The Oxford dictionary, as far as completed, embraces, in round numbers 211,000 words. Of this number 130,000 are main words; 34,000 are subordinate words; 25,000 represent special combinations; 21,000 obvious combinations. About one fourth of the entire list is obsolete. Nearly two thousand years ago the poet Horace had noted the tendency of words to drop out of use and of others to come into favor.

Yes, words long faded may again revive,

And words may fade, now blooming and alive.
If usage wills it so, to whom belongs
The rule, the law, the government of tongues.

The vagaries of usage are past finding out. It is easy to see that when a thing passes out of use the name by which it was known is forgotten except by special students of the past. Headers of medieval history meet with many such. On the other hand, certain forms of words are discarded, current expressions become obsolete, while others ara substituted because they embody a new thought and can not be dispensed