The dough-faced ploughman

Ploughman1The English language is simply marvellous. On second thoughts, perhaps ‘simply’ is not the most apposite word. Our language is anything but simple. It’s rich, fascinating, intricate and often infuriating. There are rules, sort of. Although as often as not they are there to be broken. Nevertheless, I firmly believe that you absolutely have to know the rules before you are allowed to break them. Indeed, what’s the fun in breaking things if you don’t know you’re breaking them in the first place?

Browsing through a bunch of websites, all devoted to the vagaries of English grammar and spelling, I was startled to discover that, according to the BBC, a new word is created every 98 minutes. Some people who are good at maths conclude that this is 40,000 every decade. Goodness. Since the average person knows between 35,000 and 75,000 words, if you live a normal life span you haven’t a cat’s chance in hell of keeping up (sorry, cats! It’s just an expression). Even so, it behoves us to use as many words as we can and in as much variety. And if that means inventing, then go ahead and invent. It all adds to the abundance.

There’s an excellent precedent in Shakespeare. Although he didn’t invent half the words he used, as some claim, he did invent an awful lot. Assassinate, besmirch, impartial, worthless, grovel, mimic, noiseless, bump – just a few of those he created. So for the purist who goes all humpy when words like frack, phablet, geek chic, blondies and death stare appear within the hallowed pages of the Oxford English Dictionary – just remember. Shakespeare did it first. Or indeed he probably didn’t because scribes were probably inventing new words and scandalising the establishment from the time the alphabet was invented.

There are many sites with fabulous lists of assorted facts and trivia pertaining to English, both spoken and written. It’s there that you’ll discover that W is the only letter in the alphabet that has not one but three syllables. That there are no words that rhyme with orange, purple, silver or month. You can stretch things a bit if you like and contrive some great rhymes, but they won’t be exact enough for the exacting. ‘Go!’ is the shortest complete sentence in the English language.

The most difficult sentence, or more accurately the toughest tongue-twister in the English language is said to be “the sixth sick sheik’s sixth sheep’s sick“. As for that dough-faced ploughman. There are nine different ways to pronounce the letter combination “ough”. All nine can be found in the following sentence. A rough-coated, dough-faced, thoughtful ploughman strode through the streets of Scarborough; after falling into a slough, he coughed and hiccoughed. How’s that for rich, fascinating and intriguing. Not to mention infuriating.