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LEARNED WORDS AND POPULAR WORDS 1

J. B. GREENOUGH and G. L. KITTREDGE

Two Harvard professors, James Bradstreet Greenough and George L. Kittredge, realized that there is an irresistible fascination in the study of words if the study can be shorn of pedantry. Words and Their Ways in English Speech was the result, a book that has had a tremendous influence in arousing an interest in the development of the English vocabulary. Without sacrificing scholarship, they made their discussion of words and their uses readable to the man untutored in the intricate ways of philology. They showed how information of a scientific nature can be divested of its technicalities and presented in a clear, interesting way. The collaboration of Professors Greenough and Kittredge was an especially happy one for the purpose of producing this particular book, as the former was a professor of Latin and a fine student of Greek, and the latter was a professor of English, whose interest centered upon English classical literature and the origin and structural development of the English language.

Both men have made other scholarly contributions in language study and both have done important editing as well. Professor Greenough held the chair of Latin at Harvard for more than a quarter of a century and was the well-known editor of a series of classical text-books. He was born in Maine in 1833. Professor Kittredge is also a New Englander by birth and education, being born in Boston, February 28, 1860, and educated at Har: vard, where he is still a professor of English. He has written on Chaucer and Shakespeare, and in collaboration with Professor F. A. Farley has produced several important grammars. His work as an editor is notable, the Athenæum Press Series of English Classics and the Albion Series of Anglo-Saxon and Middle English Poets having been published under his direction.

In every cultivated language there are two great classes of words which, taken together, comprise the whole vocabulary. First, there are those words with which we become acquainted in ordinary conversation, which we

1 From Words and Their Ways in English Speech, by permission of the publishers, the Macmillan Company.

learn, that is to say, from the members of our own family and from our familiar associates, and which we should know and use even if we could not read or write. They concern the common things of life, and are the stock in trade of all who speak the language. Such words may be called "popular," since they belong to the people at large and are not the exclusive possession of a limited class.

On the other hand, our language includes a multitude of words which are comparatively seldom used in ordinary conversation. Their meanings are known to every educated person, but there is little occasion to employ them at home or in the market-place. Our first acquaintance with them comes not from our mother's lips or from the talk of our schoolmates, but from books that we read, lectures that we hear, or the more formal conversation of highly educated speakers who are discussing some particular topic in a style appropriately elevated above the habitual level of everyday life. Such words are called "learned," and the distinction between them and "popular" words is of great importance to a right understanding of linguistic process.

The difference between popular and learned words may be easily seen in a few examples. We may describe a girl as “lively" or as “vivacious.” In the first case, we are using a native English formation from the familiar noun life. In the latter, we are using a Latin derivative which has precisely the same meaning. Yet the atmosphere of the two words is quite different. No one ever got the adjective lively out of a book. It is a part of everybody's vocabulary. We cannot remember a time when we did not know it, and we feel sure that we learned it long before we were able to read. On the other hand, we must have passed several years of our lives before learning the word vivacious. We may even remember the first time that we saw it in print or heard it from some grown-up friend who was talking over our childish heads. Both lively and vivacious are good English words, but lively is popular and vivacious is learned.

From the same point of view we may contrast the following pairs of synonyms: the same, identical; speech, oration; fire, conflagration; choose, select; brave, valorous; swallowing, deglutition; striking, percussion; building, edifice; shady, umbrageous; puckery, astringent; learned, erudite; secret, cryptic; destroy, annihilate; stiff, rigid; flabby, flaccid; queer, eccentric; behead, decapitate; round, circular; thin, emaciated; fat, corpulent; truthful, veracious; try, endeavor; bit, modicum; piece, fragment; sharp, acute; crazy, maniacal; king, sovereign; book, volume; lying, mendacious; beggar, mendicant; teacher, instructor; play, drama; air, atmosphere; paint, pigment.

The terms "popular” and “learned,” as applied to words, are not absolute definitions. No two persons have the same stock of words, and the same word may be "popular” in one's man vocabulary and "learned" in another's. There are also different grades of "popularity”; indeed there is in reality a continuous gradation from infantile words like mama and papa to such erudite derivatives as concatenation and cataclysm. Still, the division into “learned” and “popular” is convenient and sound. Disputes may arise as to the classification of any

2 Not all the words are exact synonyms, but that is of no importance in the present discussion.

3 It is instructive to study one's own vocabulary from this point of view, making a list of (1) those words which we feel sure we learned in childhood, (2) those which we have learned in later life, but not from books, (3) those which have entered our vocabulary from books. We shall also find it useful to consider the difference between our reading vocabulary and our speaking vocabulary.

particular word, but there can be no difference of opinion about the general principle. We must be careful, however, to avoid misconception. When we call a word "popular," we do not mean that it is a favorite word, but simply that it belongs to the people as a whole—that is, it is everybody's word, not the possession of a limited number. When we call a word "learned” we do not mean that it is used by scholars alone, but simply that its presence in the English vocabulary is due to books and the cultivation of literature rather than to the actual needs of ordinary conversation.

Here is one of the main differences between a cultivated and an uncultivated language. Both possess a large stock of “popular" words; but the cultivated language is also rich in "learned” words, with which the ruder tongue has not provided itself simply because it has never felt the need of them.

In English it will usually be found that the so-called learned words are of foreign origin. Most of them are derived from French or Latin, and a considerable number from Greek. The reason is obvious. The development of English literature has not been isolated, but has taken place in close connection with the earnest study of foreign literatures. Thus, in the fourteenth century, when our language was assuming substantially the shape which it now bears, the literary exponent of English life and thought, Geoffrey Chaucer, the first of our great poets, was profoundly influenced by Latin literature as well as by that of France and Italy. In the sixteenth and

seventeenth centuries the Greek and Latin classics were vigor

ously studied by almost every English writer of any consequence, and the great authors of antiquity were regarded as models, not merely of general literary form, but of expression in all its details. These foreign influences have varied much in character and intensity. But it is safe to say that there has been no time since 1350 when English writers of the highest class have not looked to Latin, French, and Italian authors for guidance and inspiration. From 1600 to the present day the direct influence of Greek literature and philosophy has also been enormous, affecting as it has the finest spirits in a peculiarly pervasive way, and its indirect influence is quite beyond calculation. Greek civilization, we should remember, has acted upon us, not merely through Greek literature and art, but also through the medium of Latin, since the Romans borrowed their higher culture from Greece.

Now certain facts in the history of our language have made it peculiarly inclined to borrow from French and Latin. The Norman Conquest in the eleventh century made French the language of polite society in England; and, long after the contact between Norman-French and English had ceased to be of direct significance in our linguistic development, the reading and speaking of French and the study of French literature formed an important part of the education of English-speaking men and women. When literary English was in process of formation in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the authors whose works determined the cultivated vocabulary were almost as familiar with French as with their mother tongue, and it was therefore natural that they should borrow a good many French words. But these same authors were also familiar with Latin, which, though called a dead language, has always been the professional dialect of ecclesiastics and a lingua franca for educated men. Thus the borrowing from French and from Latin went on side by side, and it is often impossible to say from which of the two languages a particular English word is taken. The practice of naturalizing

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