English Lexicology

The Etymology of English Words. Vocabulary as a system. Professional terminology. Etymological doublets. The main problems of lexicology. The historical circumstances which stimulate the borrowing process. The Object of Lexicology. The structure of word.

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English Lexicology

Г.Б. Антрушина, О.В, Афанасьева, Н.Н. Морозова


In this book the reader will find the fundamentals of the word theory and of the main problems associated with English vocabulary, its characteristics and subdivisions. Each chapter contains both theory and exercises for seminar and independent work.

The book is intended for English language students at Pedagogical Universities (3d and 4th years of studies) taking the course of English lexicology and fully meets the requirements of the programme in the subject. It may also be of interest to all readers, whose command of English is sufficient to enable them to read texts of average difficulty and who would like to gain some information about the vocabulary resources of Modern English (for example, about synonyms and antonyms), about the stylistic peculiarities of English vocabulary, about the complex nature of the word's meaning and the modern methods of its investigation, about English idioms, about those changes that English vocabulary underwent in its historical development and about some other aspects of English lexicology. One can hardly acquire a perfect command of English without having knowledge of all these things, for a perfect command of a language implies the conscious approach to the language's resources and at least a partial understanding of the "inner mechanism" which makes the huge language system work.

This book is the first attempt to embrace both the theory and practical exercises in the one volume, the two parts being integrated. The authors tried to establish links between the theory of lexicology and the reality of living speech, on the one hand, and the language-learning and language-teaching process, on the other, never losing sight of the fact that the majority of intended readers of the book are teachers and students of Pedagogical Universities.

The authors tried to present the material in an easy and comprehensible style and, at the same time, to meet the reader on the level of a half-informal talk. With the view of making the book more vivid and interesting, we have introduced extracts from humorous authors, numerous jokes and anecdotes and extracts from books by outstanding writers, aiming to show how different lexicological phenomena are used for stylistic purposes.

Theory and exercises to Ch. 1--2 were written by G.B.Antrushina, exercises to Introduction and Ch. 5, 6, 9, 10, 11 by O. V. Afanasyeva and to Ch. 3, 4, 7, 8,12,13,14 by N. N. Morozova.

The authors wish to acknowledge the considerable assistance afforded them by their English colleague Mr. Robert T. Pullin, Lecturer in Education, Russian and French, at the University of Sheffield, U. K., who kindly acted as stylistic editor before final publication.

We are also sincerely grateful to our colleagues at the Pyatigorsk and Irkutsk Institutes of Foreign Languages and at the Pedagogical Institute of Ekaterinburg who read the book in manuscript and made valuable suggestions.

What Is a Word? What Is Lexicology?

What's is a name? that which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet...

(W. Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Sc. 2)

These famous lines reflect one of the fundamental problems of linguistic research: what is in a name, in a word? Is there any direct connection between a word and the object it represents? Could a rose have been called by "any other name" as Juliet says?

These and similar questions are answered by lexicological research. Lexicology, a branch of linguistics, is the study of words.

For some people studying words may seem uninteresting. But if studied properly, it may well prove just as exciting and novel as unearthing the mysteries of Outer Space.

It is significant that many scholars have attempted to define the word as a linguistic phenomenon. Yet none of the definitions can be considered totally satisfactory in all aspects. It is equally surprising that, despite all the achievements of modern science, certain essential aspects of the nature of the word still escape us. Nor do we fully understand the phenomenon called "language", of which the word is a fundamental unit.

We do not know much about the origin of language and, consequently, of the origin of words. It is true that there are several hypotheses, some of them no less fantastic than the theory of the divine origin of language.

We know nothing -- or almost nothing -- about the mechanism by which a speaker's mental process is converted into sound groups called "words", nor about the reverse process whereby a listener's brain converts the acoustic phenomena into concepts and ideas, thus establishing a two-way process of communication.

We know very little about the nature of relations between the word and the referent (i. e. object, phenomenon, quality, action, etc. denoted by the word). If we assume that there is a direct relation between the word and the referent -- which seems logical -- it gives rise to another question: how should we explain the fact that the same referent is designated by quite different sound groups in different languages.

We do know by now -- though with vague uncertainty -- that there is nothing accidental about the vocabulary of the language;1 that each word is a small unit within a vast, efficient and perfectly balanced system. But we do not know why it possesses these qualities, nor do we know much about the processes by which it has acquired them.

The list of unknowns could be extended, but it is probably high time to look at the brighter side and register some of the things we do know about the nature of the word.

First, we do know that the word is a unit of speech which, as such, serves the purposes of human communication. Thus, the word can be defined as a unit of communication.

Secondly, the word can be perceived as the total of the sounds which comprise it.

Third, the word, viewed structurally, possesses several characteristics.

The modern approach to word studies is based on distinguishing between the external and the internal structures of the word.

1 By the vocabulary of a language is understood the total sum of its words. Another term for the same is the stock of words.

By external structure of the word we mean its morphological structure. For example, in the word post-impressionists the following morphemes can be distinguished: the prefixes post-, im-, the root press, the noun-forming suffixes -ion, -ist, and the grammatical suffix of plurality -s. All these morphemes constitute the external structure of the word post-impressionists.

The external structure of words, and also typical word-formation patterns, are studied in the section on word-building (see Ch. 5, 6).

The internal structure of the word, or its meaning, is nowadays commonly referred to as the word's semantic structure. This is certainly the word's main aspect. Words can serve the purposes of human communication solely due to their meanings, and it is most unfortunate when this fact is ignored by some contemporary scholars who, in their obsession with the fetish of structure tend to condemn as irrelevant anything that eludes mathematical analysis. And this is exactly what meaning, with its subtle variations and shifts, is apt to do.

The area of lexicology specialising in the semantic studies of the word is called semantics (see Ch. 7, 8).

Another structural aspect of the word is its unity. The word possesses both external (or formal) unity and semantic unity. Formal unity of the word is sometimes inaccurately interpreted as indivisibility. The example of post-impressionists has already shown that the word is not, strictly speaking, indivisible. Yet, its component morphemes are permanently linked together in opposition to word-groups, both free and with fixed contexts, whose components possess a certain structural freedom, e. g. bright light, to take for granted (see Ch. 12).

The formal unity of the word can best be illustrated by comparing a word and a word-group comprising identical constituents. The difference between a blackbird and a black bird is best explained by their relationship with the grammatical system of the language. The word blackbird, which is characterised by unity, possesses a single grammatical framing: blackbird/s. The first constituent black is not subject to any grammatical changes. In the word-group a black bird each constituent can acquire grammatical forms of its own: the blackest birds I've ever seen. Other words can be inserted between the components which is impossible so far as the word is concerned as it would violate its unity: a black night bird.

The same example may be used to illustrate what we mean by semantic unity.

In the word-group a black bird each of the meaningful words conveys a separate concept: bird -- a kind of living creature; black -- a colour.

The word blackbird conveys only one concept: the type of bird. This is one of the main features of any word: it always conveys one concept, no matter how many component morphemes it may have in its external structure.

A further structural feature of the word is its susceptibility to grammatical employment. In speech most words can be used in different grammatical forms in which their interrelations are realised.

So far we have only underlined the word's major peculiarities, but this suffices to convey the general idea of the difficulties and questions faced by the scholar attempting to give a detailed definition of the word. The difficulty does not merely consist in the considerable number of aspects that are to be taken into account, but, also, in the essential unanswered questions of word theory which concern the nature of its meaning (see Ch. 7).

All that we have said about the word can be summed up as follows.

The word is a speech unit used for the purposes of human communication, materially representing a group of sounds, possessing a meaning, susceptible to grammatical employment and characterised by formal and semantic unity.

The Main Lexicological Problems

Two of these have already been underlined. The problem of word-building is associated with prevailing morphological word-structures and with processes of making new words. Semantics is the study of meaning. Modern approaches to this problem are characterised by two different levels of study: syntagmatic and paradigmatic.

On the syntagmatic level, the semantic structure of the word is analysed in its linear relationships with neighbouring words in connected speech. In other words, the semantic characteristics of the word are observed, described and studied on the basis of its typical contexts.

On the paradigmatic level, the word is studied in its relationships with other words in the vocabulary system. So, a word may be studied in comparison with other words of similar meaning (e. g. work, n. -- labour, n.; to refuse, v. -- to reject v. -- to decline, v.), of opposite meaning (e. g. busy, adj. -- idle, adj.; to accept, v, -- to reject, v.), of different stylistic characteristics (e. g. man, n. -- chap, n. -- bloke, n. -- guy, n.). Consequently, the main problems of paradigmatic studies are synonymy (see Ch. 9, 10), antonymy (see Ch. 10), functional styles (see Ch. 1, 2).

Phraseology is the branch of lexicology specialising in word-groups which are characterised by stability of structure and transferred meaning, e. g. to take the bull by the horns, to see red, birds of a feather, etc. (see Ch. 12, 13).

One further important objective of lexicological studies is the study of the vocabulary of a language as a system. The vocabulary can be studied synchronically, that is, at a given stage of its development, or diachronically, that is, in the context of the processes through which it grew, developed and acquired its modern form (see Ch. 3, 4). The opposition of the two approaches accepted in modern linguistics is nevertheless disputable as the vocabulary, as well as the word which is its fundamental unit, is not only what it is now, at this particular stage of the language's development, but, also, what it was centuries ago and has been throughout its history.


Consider your answers to the following.

In what way can one analyse a word a) socially, b) linguistically?

What are the structural aspects of the word?

What is the external structure of the word irresistible? What is the internal structure of this word?

What is understood by formal unity of a word? Why is it not quite correct to say that a word is indivisible?

Explain why the word blackboard can be considered a unity and why the combination of words a black board doesn't possess such a unity.

What is understood by the semantic unity of a word? Which of the following possesses semantic unity -- a bluebell (R. колокольчик) or a blue bell (R. синий бубенчик).

Give a brief account of the main characteristics of a word.

What are the main problems of lexicology?

What are the main differences between studying words syntagmatically and paradigmatically?

1. Which Word Should We Choose, Formal or Informal?

Just as there is formal and informal dress, so there is formal and informal speech. One is not supposed to turn up at a ministerial reception or at a scientific symposium wearing a pair of brightly coloured pyjamas. (Jeans are scarcely suitable for such occasions either, though this may be a matter of opinion.) Consequently, the social context in which the communication is taking place determines both the mode of dress and the modes of speech. When placed in different situations, people instinctively choose different kinds of words and structures to express their thoughts. The suitability or unsuitability of a word for each particular situation depends on its stylistic characteristics or, in other words, on the functional style it represents.

The term functional style is generally accepted in modern linguistics. Professor I. V. Arnold defines it as "a system of expressive means peculiar to a specific sphere of communication". [23]

By the sphere of communication we mean the circumstances attending the process of speech in each particular case: professional communication, a lecture, an informal talk, a formal letter, an intimate letter, a speech in court, etc.

All these circumstances or situations can be roughly classified into two types: formal (a lecture, a speech in court, an official letter, professional communication) and informal (an informal talk, an intimate letter).

Accordingly, functional styles are classified into two groups, with further subdivisions depending on different situations.

Informal Style

Informal vocabulary is used in one's immediate circle: family, relatives or friends. One uses informal words when at home or when feeling at home.

Informal style is relaxed, free-and-easy, familiar and unpretentious. But it should be pointed out that the informal talk of well-educated people considerably differs from that of the illiterate or the semi-educated; the choice of words with adults is different from the vocabulary of teenagers; people living in the provinces use certain regional words and expressions. Consequently, the choice of words is determined in each particular case not only by an informal (or formal) situation, but also by the speaker's educational and cultural background, age group, and his occupational and regional characteristics.

Informal words and word-groups are traditionally divided into three types: colloquial, slang and dialect words and word-groups.

Colloquial Words

Among other informal words, colloquialisms are the least exclusive: they are used by everybody, and their sphere of communication is comparatively wide, at least of literary colloquial words. These are informal words that are used in everyday conversational speech both by cultivated and uneducated people of all age groups. The sphere of communication of literary colloquial words also includes the printed page, which shows that the term "colloquial" is somewhat inaccurate.

Vast use of informal words is one of the prominent features of 20th century English and American literature. It is quite natural that

informal words appear in dialogues in which they realistically reflect the speech of modern people:

"You're at some sort of technical college?" she said to Leo, not looking at him ... .

"Yes. I hate it though. I'm not good enough at maths. There's a chap there just down from Cambridge who puts us through it. I can't keep up. Were you good at maths?"

"Not bad. But I imagine school maths are different."

"Well, yes, they are. I can't cope with this stuff at all, it's the whole way of thinking that's beyond me... I think I'm going to chuck it and take a job."

(From The Time of the Angels by I. Murdoch)

However, in modern fiction informal words are not restricted to conversation in their use, but frequently appear in descriptive passages as well. In this way the narrative is endowed with conversational features. The author creates an intimate, warm, informal atmosphere, meeting his reader, as it were, on the level of a friendly talk, especially when the narrative verges upon non-personal direct speech.

"Fred Hardy was a bad lot. Pretty women, chemin de fer, and an unlucky knack for backing the wrong horse had landed him in the bankruptcy court by the time he was twenty-five ...

...If he thought of his past it was with complacency; he had had a good time, he had enjoyed his ups and downs; and now, with good health and a clear conscience, he was prepared to settle down as a country gentleman, damn it, bring up the kids as kids should be brought up; and when the old buffer who sat for his Constituency pegged out, by George, go into Parliament himself."

(From Rain and Other Short Stories by W.S. Maugham)

Here are some more examples of literary colloquial words. Pal and chum are colloquial equivalents of friend; girl, when used colloquially, denotes a woman of any age; bite and snack stand for meal; hi, hello are informal greetings, and so long a form of parting; start, go on, finish and be through are also literary colloquialisms; to have a crush on somebody is a colloquial equivalent of to be in love. A bit (of) and a lot (of) also belong to this group.

A considerable number of shortenings are found among words of this type. E. g. pram, exam, fridge, flu, prop, zip, movie.

Verbs with post-positional adverbs are also numerous among colloquialisms: put up, put over, make up, make out, do away, turn up, turn in, etc.

Literary colloquial words are to be distinguished from familiar colloquial and low colloquial.

The borderline between the literary and familiar colloquial is not always clearly marked. Yet the circle of speakers using familiar colloquial is more limited: these words are used mostly by the young and the semi-educated. This vocabulary group closely verges on slang and has something of its coarse flavour.

E. g. doc (for doctor), hi (for how do you do), ta-ta (for good-bye), goings-on (for behaviour, usually with a negative connotation), to kid smb. (for tease, banter), to pick up smb. (for make a quick and easy acquaintance), go on with you (for let me alone), shut up (for keep silent), beat it (for go away).

Low colloquial is defined by G. P. Krapp as uses "characteristic of the speech of persons who may be broadly described as uncultivated". [31] This group is stocked with words of illiterate English which do not present much interest for our purposes.

The problem of functional styles is not one of purely theoretical interest, but represents a particularly important aspect of the language-learning process. Stdents of English should be taught how to choose stylistically suitable words for each particular speech situation.

So far as colloquialisms are concerned, most students' mistakes originate from the ambiguousness of the term itself. Some students misunderstand the term "colloquial" and accept it as a recommendation for wide usage (obviously mistaking "colloquial" for "conversational"). This misconception may lead to most embarrassing errors unless it is taken care of in the early stages of language study.

As soon as the first words marked "colloquial" appear in the students' functional vocabulary, it should be explained to them that the marker "colloquial" (as, indeed, any other stylistic marker) is not a recommendation for unlimited usage but, on the contrary, a sign of restricted usage. It is most important that the teacher should carefully describe the typical situations to which colloquialisms are restricted and warn the students against using them under formal circumstances or in their compositions and reports.

Literary colloquial words should not only be included in the students' functional and recognition vocabularies, but also presented and drilled in suitable contexts and situations, mainly in dialogues. It is important that students should be trained to associate these words with informal, relaxed situations.


Much has been written on the subject of slang that is contradictory and at the same time very interesting.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines slang as "language of a highly colloquial style, considered as below the level of standard educated speech, and consisting either of new words or of current words employed in some special sense." [33]

This definition is inadequate because it equates slang with colloquial style. The qualification "highly" can hardly serve as the criterion for distinguishing between colloquial style and slang.

Yet, the last line of the definition "current words in some special sense" is important and we shall have to return to this a little later.

Here is another definition of slang by the famous English writer G. K. Chesterton:

"The one stream of poetry which in constantly flowing is slang. Every day some nameless poet weaves some fairy tracery of popular language. ...All slang is metaphor, and all metaphor is poetry. ...The world of slang is a kind of topsy-turvydom of poetry, full of blue moons and white elephants, of men losing their heads, and men whose tongues run away with them -- a whole chaos of fairy tales." [10]

The first thing that attracts attention in this enthusiastic statement is that the idioms which the author quotes have long since ceased being associated with slang: neither once in a blue moon, nor the white elephant, nor your tongue has run away with you are indicated as slang in modern dictionaries. This is not surprising, for slang words and idioms are short-lived and very soon either disappear or lose their peculiar colouring and become either colloquial or stylistically neutral lexical units.

As to the author's words "all slang is metaphor", it is a true observation, though the second part of the statement "all metaphor is poetry" is difficult to accept, especially if we consider the following examples: mug (for face), saucers, blinkers (for eyes), trap (for mouth, e. g. Keep your trap shut), dogs (for feet), to leg (it) (for to walk).

--All these meanings are certainly based on metaphor, yet they strike one as singularly unpoetical.

Henry Bradley writes that "Slang sets things in their proper place with a smile. So, to call a hat 'a lid' and a head 'a nut' is amusing because it puts a hat and a pot-lid in the same class". [17] And, we should add, a head and a nut in the same class too.

"With a smile" is true. Probably "grin" would be a more suitable word. Indeed, a prominent linguist observed that if colloquialisms can be said to be wearing dressing-gowns and slippers, slang is wearing a perpetual foolish grin. The world of slang is inhabited by odd creatures indeed: not by men, but by guys (R. чучела) and blighters or rotters with nuts for heads, mugs for faces, flippers for hands.

All or most slang words are current words whose meanings have been metaphorically shifted. Each slang metaphor is rooted in a joke, but not in a kind or amusing joke. This is the criterion for distinguishing slang from colloquialisms: most slang words are metaphors and jocular, often with a coarse, mocking, cynical colouring.

This is one of the common objections against slang: a person using a lot of slang seems to be sneering and jeering at everything under the sun. This objection is psychological. There are also linguistic ones.

G.H. McKnight notes that "originating as slang expressions often do, in an insensibility to the meaning of legitimate words, the use of slang checks an acquisition of a command over recognised modes of expression ... and must result in atrophy of the faculty of using language". [34]

H.W. Fowler states that "as style is the great antiseptic, so slang is the great corrupting matter, it is perishable, and infects what is round it". [27]

McKnight also notes that "no one capable of good speaking or good writing is likely to be harmed by the occasional employment of slang, provided that he is conscious of the fact..." [34]

Then why do people use slang?

For a number of reasons. To be picturesque, arresting, striking and, above all, different from others. To avoid the tedium of outmoded hackneyed "common" words. To demonstrate one's spiritual independence and daring. To sound "modern" and "up-to-date".

It doesn't mean that all these aims are achieved by using slang. Nor are they put in so many words by those using slang on the conscious level. But these are the main reasons for using slang as explained by modern psychologists and linguists.

The circle of users of slang is more narrow than that of colloquialisms. It is mainly used by the young and uneducated. Yet, slang's colourful and humorous quality makes it catching, so that a considerable part of slang may become accepted by nearly all the groups of speakers.

Dialect Words

H.W. Fowler defines a dialect as "a variety of a language which prevails in a district, with local peculiarities of vocabulary, pronunciation and phrase". [19] England is a small country, yet it has many dialects which have their own distinctive features (e. g. the Lancashire, Dorsetshire, Norfolk dialects).

So dialects are regional forms of English. Standard English is defined by the Random House Dictionary as the English language as it is written and spoken by literate people in both formal and informal usage and that is universally current while incorporating regional differences. [54]

Dialectal peculiarities, especially those of vocabulary, are constantly being incorporated into everyday colloquial speech or slang. From these levels they can be transferred into the common stock, i. e. words which are not stylistically marked (see "The Basic Vocabulary", Ch. 2) and a few of them even into formal speech and into the literary language. Car, trolley, tram began as dialect words.

A snobbish attitude to dialect on the part of certain educationalists and scholars has been deplored by a number of prominent linguists. E. Partridge writes:

"The writers would be better employed in rejuvenating the literary (and indeed the normal cultured) language by substituting dialectal freshness, force, pithiness, for standard exhaustion, feebleness, long-windedness than in attempting to rejuvenate it with Gallicisms, Germanicisms, Grecisms and Latinisms." [38]

In the following extract from The Good Companions by J.B. Priestley, the outstanding English writer ingeniously and humorously reproduces his native Yorkshire dialect. The speakers are discussing a football match they have just watched. The author makes use of a number of dialect words and grammatical structures and, also, uses spelling to convey certain phonetic features of "broad Yorkshire".

"'Na Jess!' said the acquaintance, taking an imitation calabash pipe out of his mouth and then winking mysteriously.

'Na Jim!' returned Mr. Oakroyd. This 'Na' which must once have been 'Now', is the recognised salutation in Bruddersford,1 and the fact that it sounds more like a word of caution than a word of greeting is by no means surprising. You have to be careful in Bruddersford.

'Well,' said Jim, falling into step, 'what did you think on 'em?'

'Think on 'em!' Mr. Oakroyd made a number of noises with his tongue to show what he thought of them.

Bruddersford, the scene of the extract, is easily recognizable as Bradford, Priestley's birthplace.

... 'Ah '11 tell tha7 what it is, Jess,' said his companion, pointing the stem of his pipe and becoming broader in his Yorkshire as he grew more philosophical. 'If t' United1 had less brass2 to lake3 wi', they'd lake better football.'His eyes searched the past for a moment, looking for the team that had less money and had played better football. 'Tha can remember when t' club had niwer4 set eyes on two thousand pahnds, when t' job lot wor not worth two thahsand pahnds, pavilion and all, and what sort of football did they lake then? We know, don't we? They could gi' thee1 summat5 worth watching then. Nah, it's all nowt,6 like t' ale an' baccy7 they ask so mich8 for -- money fair thrawn away, ah calls it. Well, we mun9 'a' wer teas and get ower it. Behave thi-sen/10 Jess!' And he turned away, for that final word of caution was only one of Bruddersford's familiar good-byes.

'Ay,11 replied Mr. Oakroyd dispiritedly. 'So long, Jim!'"

1 tha (thee) -- the objective case of thou; 2 brass -- money; 3 to lake -- to play; 4 nivver -- never; 5 summat -- something; 6 nowt -- nothing; 7 baccy -- tobacco; 8 mich -- much; 9 тип -- must; 10 thi-sen (= thy-self) -- yourself; 11 ay(e) -- yes.


I. Consider your answers to the following.

What determines the choice of stylistically marked words in each particular situation?

In what situations are informal words used?

What are the main kinds of informal words? Give a brief description of each group.

1 United -- the name of a football team.

ther approached a farmer who was standing nearby and asked: "Can we take this road to Sheffield?" The farmer eyed the car and its contents sourly, then: "Aye, you mun as well, you've takken nigh everything else around here."

V. Make up a dialogue using colloquial words from your lists and from the extracts given in the chapter.

a. In the first dialogue, two undergraduates are dis cussing why one of them has been expelled from his college. (Don't forget that young people use both literary and familiar colloquial words.)

b. In the second dialogue, the parents of the dismissed student are wondering what to do with him. (Older people, as you remember, are apt to be less informal in their choice of words.)

2. Which Word Should We Choose, Formal or Informal? (continued)

Formal Style

We have already pointed out that formal style is restricted to formal situations. In general, formal words fall into two main groups: words associated with professional communication and a less exclusive group of so-called learned words.

Learned Words

These words are mainly associated with the printed page. It is in this vocabulary stratum that poetry and fiction find their main resources.

The term "learned" is not precise and does not adequately describe the exact characteristics of these words. A somewhat out-of-date term for the same category of words is "bookish", but, as E. Partridge notes, "'book-learned' and 'bookish' are now uncomplimentary. The corresponding complimentaries are 'erudite', 'learned', 'scholarly'. 'Book-learned' and 'bookish' connote 'ignorant of life', however much book-learning one may possess". [30]

The term "learned" includes several heterogeneous subdivisions of words. We find here numerous words that are used in scientific prose and can be identified by their dry, matter-of-fact flavour (e. g. comprise, compile, experimental, heterogeneous, homogeneous, conclusive, divergent, etc.).

To this group also belongs so-called "officialese" (cf. with the R. канцеляризмы). These are the words of the official, bureaucratic language. E. Partridge in his dictionary Usage and Abusage gives a list of officialese which he thinks should be avoided in speech and in print. Here are some words from Partridge's list: assist (for help), endeavour (for try), proceed (for go), approximately (for about), sufficient (for enough), attired (for dressed), inquire (for ask).

In the same dictionary an official letter from a Government Department is quoted which may very well serve as a typical example of officialese. It goes: "You are authorized to acquire the work in question by purchase through the ordinary trade channels." Which, translated into plain English, would simply mean: "We advise you to buy the book in a shop." [38]

Probably the most interesting subdivision of learned words is represented by the words found in descriptive passages of fiction. These words, which may be called "literary", also have a particular flavour of their own, usually described as "refined". They are mostly polysyllabic words drawn from the Romance languages and, though fully adapted to the English phonetic system, some of them continue to sound singularly foreign. They also seem to retain an aloofness associated with the lofty contexts in which they have been used for centuries. Their very sound seems to create complex and solemn associations. Here are some examples: solitude, sentiment, fascination, fastidiousness, facetiousness, delusion, meditation, felicity, elusive, cordial, illusionary.

There is one further subdivision of learned words: modes of poetic diction. These stand close to the previous group many words from which, in fact, belong to both these categories. Yet, poetic words have a further characteristic -- a lofty, high-flown, sometimes archaic, colouring:

"Alas! they had been friends in youth; But whispering tongues can poison truth

And constancy lives in realms above; And life is thorny; and youth is vain; And to be wroth with one we love, Doth work like madness in the brain..."


Though learned words are mainly associated with the printed page, this is not exclusively so. Any educated English-speaking individual is sure to use many learned words not only in his formal letters and professional communication but also in his everyday speech. It is true that sometimes such uses strike a definitely incongruous note as in the following extract:

"You should find no difficulty in obtaining a secretarial post in the city." Carel said "obtaining a post" and not "getting a job". It was part of a bureaucratic manner which, Muriel noticed, he kept reserved for her."

(From The Time of the Angels by I. Murdoch)

Yet, generally speaking, educated people in both modern fiction and real life use learned words quite naturally and their speech is certainly the richer for it.

On the other hand, excessive use of learned elements in conversational speech presents grave hazards. Utterances overloaded with such words have pretensions of "refinement" and "elegance" but achieve the exact opposite verging on the absurd and ridiculous.

Writers use this phenomenon for stylistic purposes. When a character in a book or in a play uses too many learned words, the obvious inappropriateness of his speech in an informal situation produces a comic effect,

When Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest recommends Jack "to make a definite effort to produce at any rate one parent, of either sex, before the season is over", the statement is funny because the seriousness and precision of the language seems comically out-of-keeping with the informal situation.

The following quotations speak for themselves. (The "learned" elements are italicized.)

Gwendolen in the same play declaring her love for Jack says:

"The story of your romantic origin as related to me by mamma, with unpleasing comments, has naturally stirred the deepest fibres of my nature. Your Christian name has an irresistible fascination. The simplicity of your nature makes you exquisitely incomprehensible to me..."

Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion by B. Shaw engaging in traditional English small talk answers the question "Will it rain, do you think?" in the following way:

"The shallow depression in the west of these islands is likely to move slowly in an easterly direction. There are no indications of any great change in the barometrical situation."

Freddie Widgeon, a silly young man in Fate by Wodehouse, trying to defend a woman whom he thinks unduly insulted, says:

"You are aspersing a woman's name," he said.


"Don't attempt to evade the issue," said Freddie...

"You are aspersing a woman's name, and -- what

makes it worse -- you are doing it in a bowler-hat.

Take off that hat," said Freddie.

However any suggestion that learned words are suitable only for comic purposes, would be quite wrong. It is in this vocabulary stratum that writers and poets find their most vivid paints and colours, and not only their humorous effects.

Here is an extract from Iris Murdoch describing a summer evening:

"... A bat had noiselessly appropriated the space between, a flittering weaving almost substanceless fragment of the invading dark. ... A collared dove groaned once in the final light. A pink rose reclining upon the big box hedge glimmered with contained electric luminosity. A blackbird, trying to metamorphose itself into a nightingale, began a long passionate complicated song." (From The Sacred and Profane Love Machine by I. Murdoch)

This piece of modern prose is rich in literary words which underline its stern and reserved beauty. One might even say that it is the selection of words which makes the description what it is: serious, devoid of cheap sentimentality and yet charged with grave forebodings and tense expectation.

What role do learned words play in the language-learning and language-teaching process? Should they be taught? Should they be included in the students' functional and recognition vocabularies?

As far as passive recognition is concerned, the answer is clear: without knowing some learned words, it is even impossible to read fiction (not to mention scientific articles) or to listen to lectures delivered in the foreign language.

It is also true that some of these words should be carefully selected and "activised" to become part of the students' functional vocabulary.

However, for teaching purposes, they should be chosen with care and introduced into the students' speech in moderation, for, as we have seen, the excessive use of learned words may lead to absurdities.

Archaic and Obsolete Words

These words stand close to the "learned" words, particularly to the modes of poetic diction. Learned words and archaisms are both associated with the printed page. Yet, as we have seen, many learned words may also be used in conversational situations. This cannot happen with archaisms, which are invariably restricted to the printed page. These words are moribund, already partly or fully out of circulation, rejected by the living language. Their last refuge is in historical novels (whose authors use them to create a particular period atmosphere) and, of course, in poetry which is rather conservative in its choice of words.

Thou and thy, aye ("yes") and nay ("no") are certainly archaic and long since rejected by common usage, yet poets use them even today. (We also find the same four words and many other archaisms among dialectisms, which is quite natural, as dialects are also conservative and retain archaic words and structures.)

Numerous archaisms can be found in Shakespeare, but it should be taken into consideration that what appear to us today as archaisms in the works of Shakespeare, are in fact examples of everyday language of Shakespeare's time.

There are several such archaisms in Viola's speech from Twelfth Night:

"There is a fair behaviour in thee, Captain, And though that nature with a beauteous wall Doth oft close in pollution, yet of thee I will believe thou hast a mind that suits With this thy fair and outward character. I prithee -- and I'll pay thee bounteously -- Conceal me what I am, and be my aid For such disguise as haply shall become The form of my intent..."

Further examples of archaisms are: morn (for morning), eve (for evening), moon (for month), damsel (for girl), errant (for wandering, e. g. errant knights), etc.

Sometimes, an archaic word may undergo a sudden revival. So, the formerly archaic kin (for relatives; one's family) is now current in American usage.

The terms "archaic" and "obsolete" are used more or less indiscriminately by some authors. Others make a distinction between them using the term "obsolete" for words which have completely gone out of use. The Random House Dictionary defines an obsolete word as one "no longer in use, esp. out of use for at least a century", whereas an archaism is referred to as "current in an earlier time but rare in present usage". [46]

It should be pointed out that the borderline between "obsolete" and "archaic" is vague and uncertain, and in many cases it is difficult to decide to which of the groups this or that word belongs.

There is a further term for words which are no longer in use: historisms. By this we mean words denoting objects and phenomena which are, things of the past and no longer exist.

Professional Terminology

Hundreds of thousands of words belong to special scientific, professional or trade terminological systems and are not used or even understood by people outside the particular speciality. Every field of modern activity has its specialised vocabulary. There is a special medical vocabulary, and similarly special terminologies for psychology, botany, music, linguistics, teaching methods and many others.

Term, as traditionally understood, is a word or a word-group which is specifically employed by a particular branch of science, technology, trade or the arts to convey a concept peculiar to this particular activity.

So, bilingual, interdental, labialization, palatalization, glottal stop, descending scale are terms of theoretical phonetics.

There are several controversial problems in the field of terminology. The first is the puzzling question of whether a term loses its terminological status when it comes into common usage. Today this is a frequent occurrence, as various elements of the media of communication (TV, radio, popular magazines, science fiction, etc.) ply people with scraps of knowledge from different scientific fields, technology and the arts. It is quite natural that under the circumstances numerous terms pass into general usage without losing connection with their specific fields.

There are linguists in whose opinion terms are only those words which have retained their exclusiveness and are not known or recognised outside their specific sphere. From this point of view, words associated with the medical sphere, such as unit ("доза лекарственного препарата"), theatre ("операционная"), contact ("носитель инфекции") are no longer medical terms as they are in more or less common usage. The same is certainly true about names of diseases or medicines, with the exception of some rare or recent ones only known to medical men.

There is yet another point of view, according to which any terminological system is supposed to include all the words and word-groups conveying concept peculiar to a particular branch of knowledge, regardless of their exclusiveness. Modern research of various terminological systems has shown that there is no impenetrable wall between terminology and the general language system. To the contrary, terminologies seem to obey the same rules and laws as other vocabulary strata. Therefore, exchange between terminological systems and the "common" vocabulary is quite normal, and it would be wrong to regard a term as something "special" and standing apart.

Two other controversial problems deal with polysemy and synonymy.

According to some linguists, an "ideal" term should be monosemantic (i. e. it should have only one meaning). Polysemantic terms may lead to misunderstanding, and that is a serious shortcoming in professional communication. This requirement seems quite reasonable, yet facts of the language do not meet it. There are, in actual fact, numerous polysemantic terms. The linguistic term semantics may mean both the meaning of a word and the branch of lexicology studying meanings. In the terminology of painting, the term colour may denote hue ("цвет") and, at the same time, stuff used for colouring ("краска").

The same is true about synonymy in terminological systems. There are scholars who insist that terms should not have synonyms because, consequently, scientists and other specialists would name the same objects and phenomena in their field by different terms and would not be able to come to any agreement. This may be true. But, in fact, terms do possess synonyms. In painting, the same term colour has several synonyms in both its meanings: hue, shade, tint, tinge in the first meaning ("цвет") and paint, tint, dye in the second ("краска").

Basic Vocabulary

These words are stylistically neutral, and, in this respect, opposed to formal and informal words described above. Their stylistic neutrality makes it possible to use them in all kinds of situations, both formal and informal, in verbal and written communication.

Certain of the stylistically marked vocabulary strata are, in a way, exclusive: professional terminology is used mostly by representatives of the professions; dialects are regional; slang is favoured mostly by the young and the uneducated. Not so basic vocabulary. These words are used every day, everywhere and by everybody, regardless of profession, occupation, educational level, age group or geographical location. These are words without which no human communication would be possible as they denote objects and phenomena of everyday importance (e. g. house, bread, summer, winter, child, mother, green, difficult, to go, to stand, etc.). The basic vocabulary is the central group of the vocabulary, its historical foundation and living core. That is why words of this stratum show a considerably greater stability in comparison with words of the other strata, especially informal.

Basic vocabulary words can be recognised not only by their stylistic neutrality but, also, by entire lack of other connotations (i. e. attendant meanings). Their meanings are broad, general and directly convey the concept, without supplying any additional information.

For instance, the verb to walk means merely "to move from place to place on foot" whereas in the meanings of its synonyms to stride, to stroll, to trot, to stagger and others, some additional information is encoded as they each describe a different manner of walking, a different gait, tempo, purposefulness or lack of purpose and even length of paces (see Ch. 10). Thus, to walk, with its direct broad meaning, is a typical basic vocabulary word, and its synonyms, with their elaborate additional information encoded in their meanings, belong to the periphery of the vocabulary. The basic vocabulary and the stylistically marked strata of the vocabulary do not exist independently but are closely interrelated. Most stylistically marked words have their neutral counterparts in the basic vocabulary. (Terms are an exception in this respect.) On the other hand, colloquialisms may have their counterparts among learned words, most slang has counterparts both among colloquialisms and learned words. Archaisms, naturally, have their modern equivalents at least in some of the other groups.

The table gives some examples of such synonyms belonging to different stylistic strata.

Basic vocabulary




start, get started



go on, get on



finish, be through, be over


child, baby

kid, brat, beam (dial.)

infant, babe (poet.)

In teaching a foreign language, the basic vocabulary words comprise the first and absolutely essential part of the students' functional and recognition vocabularies. They constitute the beginner's vocabulary. Yet, to restrict the student to the basic vocabulary would mean to deprive his speech of colour, expressive force and emotive shades, for, if basic vocabulary words are absolutely necessary, they also decidedly lack something: they are not at all the kind of words to tempt a writer or a poet. Actually, if the language had none other but basic vocabulary words, fiction would be hardly readable, and poetry simply non-existent.

The following table sums up the description of the stylistic strata of English vocabulary.

Stylistically-neutral words

Stylistically-marked words



Basic vocabulary

I. Colloquial words

I. Learned words

A. literary,

A. literary,

B. familiar,

B. words of scientific prose,

C. low.

C. officialese,

II. Slang words.

D. modes of poetic diction.

III. Dialect words.

II. Archaic and obsolete words.

III. Professional



I. Consider your answers to the following.

Where are formal words used?

Are learned words used only in books? Which type of learned words, do you think, is especially suitable for verbal communication? Which is least suitable and even undesirable?

What are the principal characteristics of archaic words?

What are the controversial problems connected with professional terminology?

Do you think that students of English should learn terms? If so, for which branch or branches of knowledge?

What is understood by the basic vocabulary?

Which classes of stylistically marked words, in your opinion, should be included in the students' functional and recognition vocabularies in 1) junior and 2) senior school vocabularies?

II. a. The italicized words and word-groups in the following extracts belong to formal style. Describe the stylistic peculiarities of each extract in general and say whether the italicized represents learned words, terms or archaisms. Look up unfamiliar words in the dictionary.

in re1 Miss Ernestina Freeman

We are instructed by Mr. Ernest Freeman, father of the above-mentioned Miss Ernestina Freeman, to request you to attend at these chambers at 3 o'clock this coming Friday. Your failure to attend will be regarded as an acknowledgement of our client's right to proceed."

(From The French Lieutenant's Woman by J. Fowles]

2. "I have, with esteemed advice ..." Mr. Aubrey bowed briefly towards the sergeant, ... "... prepared an admission of guilt. I should instruct you that Mr. Freeman's decision not to proceed immediately is most strictly contingent upon your client's signing, on this occasion and in our presence, and witnessed by all present, this document."

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