Nearly 10 years ago a joint analysis by eggheads at Google and Harvard University determined the English language contains 1.02 million words.
The compilers of the Oxford English Dictionary have estimated that about 171,000 of them, or 17%, are currently in use.
The Economist reported a few years back that native English speakers on average actually know between 20,000 and 35,000 words - although some newer reports put the estimate a tad higher. Interestingly, the BBC once pointed out that obsolete English words (47,000 of them) outnumber the aggregate of the words most of us know.
The point is that even on the high end, the most well versed of us English speakers come armed with just 3% of the entire language.
Thinking beyond the most utilitarian words that grease our communications, having such a diverse vocabulary at our disposal should inspire us to develop new ways to discuss things, if only to break the monotony.
Yet perhaps we must purge to broaden our language skills. I’d like to begin by retiring a two-word adjective phrase so overused, so overworked that it has been rendered the most banal utterance around.
Existential threat - or ET for brevity’s sake.
We know what a threat is, and by most dictionaries, “existential,” as it emerged as a tradition in philosophy in the 1940s, relates to thinking about the being of things, most notably humans.
So, when currently coupled with “threat,” we’re supposed to understand an ET is something that, in the plainest terms, menaces human existence.
This usage dates back a decade. In a 2011 HuffPost piece, the author Andrew Levine argued ET was becoming stylish in political discourse as Israeli officials sought to ignite concern about Palestinian terrorism.
Yet in the Trump era, ET has taken on a hyperkinetic adaptation that has it racing to and fro across our political landscape - with a pretentious veneer intended to simultaneously convey intellectualism and terror.
Writing in The Atlantic in June, Columbia University linguistics professor John McWhorter observed that Google “yielded about a million hits for existential threat in 2015.” Today that search returns 20.3 million hits, and nearly 4 million if you couple ET with President Donald Trump.
Liberals maintain Trump is the ultimate ET, spelling doom for everything from the American presidency to the entire planet.
But one of the earliest uses of ET in its contemporary context that I found actually lumped Trump in with Hillary in this regard. Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies at Columbia University, noted for Al Jazeera in March 2016: “Come next November, whatever U.S. citizens choose, save the slim chance of a democratic socialist with less of a Cowboy diplomacy in his record than his rivals” - that is, Sen. Bernie Sanders - “they will place the world at large in harm’s way, facing an existential threat.”
Trump even copped the word for his own, declaring at a rally in West Palm Beach in October 2016: “The Washington establishment - and the financial and media corporations that fund it - exists for only one reason: to protect and enrich itself. ... They partner with these people that don’t have your good in mind. Our campaign represents a true existential threat like they haven’t seen before.”
In hindsight, the truth in that statement is undeniable.
ET now has become so prominent that Dictionary.com just made “existential” its word of the year. Why not? It never rests.
ET gets routine mentions when discussing climate change or Trump. Now and again, it’s attached to nuclear weapons.
So much more is now branded with that logo, however.
According to Mr. Google again, just within the last few days, other ETs include: gene-editing technology, cyber crooks, the president’s impeachment defense, billionaires, a proposed quarry expansion in Colorado, the Boston subway’s orange line (nothing to do with Trump), Amazon, Microsoft, Google, 5G broadband, British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn (that one might be applicable), Fox News and “Christian nationalism.”
In his famous 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell noted that in politics the mindless repetition of phrases like ET pollutes our thinking.
“As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed,” Orwell observed. “This invasion of one’s mind by ready-made phrases... anaesthetizes a portion of one’s brain.”
But Orwell offered a remedy: “If one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase... into the dustbin where it belongs.” With ET, let the jeering begin.
Bill Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the editorial page editor of The Ledger in Lakeland, Florida.