4 mind-blowing facts about the English language

If you’re still upset about the new definition of ‘literally,’ take a moment to consider these other examples of fluid language (with a heaping helping of sarcasm).


The fight is over, people. Our poorly educated children have won.

Recently Google, Merriam-Webster, and Macmillan added an additional definition for the word “literally.” Now, it can indicate emphasis when a given situation is not literally true. “I literally died of embarrassment” is now a valid sentence, despite the fact that embarrassment can’t actually kill you.

Naturally, the word police are aghast. Adding new definitions to words goes against all propriety and is one more sign that the long-awaited end is indeed upon us.

They’re right. Our language is not a fluid system that has changed over time but rather a static and inviolable edifice built to resist the whims of time.

As long as you ignore everything you’re about to read.

1. Shakespeare invented half the words he used.

OK, not half, but a lot. “Assassinate,” “besmirch,” “impartial,” “worthless,” “grovel,” “mimic,” “noiseless”—all these and more didn’t exist before Shakespeare decided to lump them together for the sake of fitting his iambic pentameter. Thanks a lot, Shakespeare, for besmirching the dignity of our mother tongue.

2. It wasn’t originally “butterfly.”

As if inventing words wasn’t bad enough, it turns out that words sometimes change their spelling over time, too. Case in point – the word “butterfly” was originally “flutterby,” which makes a whole lot more sense since many butterflies aren’t yellow and none of them taste like butter. Thanks a lot, butterflies.

3. Old English is unreadable.

Not just because it’s boring. It’s literally unreadable. (I’m using “literally” in its original definition, by the way.) Don’t believe me? Then check out this randomly selected passage from the epic poem “Beowulf”:

HWÆT, WE GAR-DEna in geardagum,
þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon!
oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas, syððanærest wearð
feasceaft funden.

Seriously, that’s Old English. That’s where all the words I’m writing now theoretically come from.

Thanks a lot, Old English. I would insult you properly, but I don’t know how to use any words that you’d understand.

4. Approximately 4,000 new words are added to the dictionary every year.

Basic math says that’s 40,000 every decade. According to the BBC, a new word is created every 98 minutes. And though there’s no consensus for this, it’s estimated that the average person knows between 35,000 and 75,000 words. So if you’re 20 years old, there have been more words invented in your lifetime than are in your entire vocabulary. Thanks a lot, English language. As if I weren’t already feeling unimpressive enough.

As you can see, I side with the word police. The English language should have stuck with the same 12 words we had when we started grunting it back in Beowulf’s day. And similarly, your own systems, processes, and ways of thinking should be correspondingly rigid. Emulate the dinosaurs, my friends. They knew better than to change, and they died the noble death of the sea captain going down with his ship.

Except the ones that changed into birds and lizards and things.

Jeff Havens is a corporate speaker and trainer who helps people succeed at leadership, communication, professional development, and more by telling them exactly what not to do. He shares more of his unique blend of comedy and content at JeffHavens.com.

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