The modern English language dominates the world – it is the international language of commerce, science, politics, navigation, studied as a second language by more than all others put together. It has more than a million recognized words, while other languages have a fraction of that. Of course we only use say 3000 except in unusual circumstances, and ordinary conversation gets by with less than a thousand. Primitive hunter-gatherer tribal languages with no written tradition might have only a few hundred words.
My rusty history tells me that ‘English’ started with the arrival of the ‘Angles’, a Germanic tribe, building on a base of the languages of the Picts and Celts and Scots, original occupants of the Grand Old Isle. It was modified by invaders over the centuries; certainly the Romans and their Latin had an influence, also the Vikings and the Saxons. A great many words came from the French, who dominated Britain for some centuries.
The 19th century-long world dominance of the British Empire with its extensive interplay and travel into many lands meant many more additions to the language. Introduction of new words or words borrowed from other languages has always been quite acceptable, unlike the French vocabulary which was fixed by Napoleon centuries ago.
With its convoluted grammar and its ragtag collection of words from all around the world, it has been argued English is not really a national language at all, but an international polyglot representing no one country, on course to become the world’s only language in a century or two.
Which begs the question, why would anybody bother to learn a language spoken by only a few million people in the entire world? Why would we make any effort to ‘preserve’ a language spoken by only a few people, except as a matter of historical record? But that is not what this column is about.
One result of all this is there are some amazingly versatile and useful words we can use to describe things precisely. I have been criticized for use of one of those amazing and useful words, namely the word ‘crap’. This criticism comes from those who interpret this to mean, ahem, solid bodily waste, but they are mistaken; the word for solid bodily waste is ‘shit’. Originally a perfectly acceptable old English word of Germanic origin, ‘shit’ is now considered not usable in polite company, such as a newspaper column. And no, it does not have anything to do with “ship high in transit”, which is just some internet crap.
“Crap” is also originally a perfectly acceptable old English word of Germanic, French and Latin origin, meaning chaff, weeds, rubbish, siftings or waste. Unfortunately, back in Victorian times a gentleman named Sir Thomas Crapper became a very prominent maker of plumbing items, including the flush toilet. ‘Crap’ as a derivation of his name came to mean ‘solid bodily waste’ to many people.
We Contrarians prefer the original meaning, so we think ’crap’ is perfectly acceptable in mixed company, and quite suitable for a newspaper column. Besides, can you think of a better word for the assorted stuff that is poked at you by politicians, the internet, those with an agenda to sell? Except perhaps ‘shit’, but of course that is so vulgar we can’t use it.