May 06, 2010

Robert Beard
Robert Beard, professor emeritus.

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LEWISBURG, Pa. — Welcome again to "Ask the Experts," a regular web feature that highlights the expertise of various Bucknellians in a range of topics related to current news events and other timely subjects. || Ask the Experts archive

This week, we asked Robert Beard, a professor emeritus who taught Russian and linguistics at Bucknell for 35 years, about his recent book, The 100 Most Beautiful Words in English, and our ever-changing language.

Q: How did The 100 Most Beautiful Words in English come about?

A: On my website, I do a word of the day — The Good Word — which has about 22,000 e-mail subscribers. I noticed that I would get more mail from my subscribers for certain words than others and they began falling into categories.

The first thing people always write in about is funny words — words like "fartlek," which isn't at all what it seems to be in English. It's an exercise method introduced by a Swede. If you think about it, "filibuster" is a funny word because it originally meant a pirate, and it still seems like debate piracy in the Senate. So, my first book was The 100 Funniest Words in English

The other category that really stuck out was beautiful words — a word like "petrichor," which I think is a beautiful word. Petrichor is the fragrance you get after a rain, when the ground has been dry for a long time. The word was put together by two Australian geologists, of all people, not poets. I also like "ailurophile" because it is much lovelier than its synonym, "cat-lover."

I put in the word Susquehanna. It's a beautiful word. I do a little essay at the beginning of the book in which I discuss what makes a word beautiful. It's the sound and meaning and the way they fit together. Susquehanna sounds like a very soft, quiet river. It means big water in the Algonquin language. A lot of beautiful words in the English language come from Indian languages that have "r's" and "l's" and "ah's" in them.

Q: What are some of your all-time favorite words?

A:  Petrichor is my favorite above all because, first of all, it's surprising as well. It's not just beautiful, it's surprising that there's a word for that. When I first stumbled across it, I said, "good grief."

We also have on the website a page for sniglets - words that should be in the dictionary but aren't. The comedian Rich Hall came up with the idea. Things like "electile dysfunction" — the inability to become aroused by any candidates in an election — or "Googleganger" — a person with your name who shows up when you google yourself.

Q: Language seems to be always in a state of change. Why is that?

A: We go through periods, particularly periods of technological development where we need new words. There are several ways of creating them. English loves to raid other languages for their vocabulary. I like to call English a lexical pirate. Probably half of our vocabulary came from French alone.

Since we were so far ahead in the information technology revolution, so much further ahead than other countries, we had to use our own resources this time. What we usually do is take a word that's already in the language and extend its meaning. So, "memory" becomes the data storage device on a computer. "Mouse" becomes the little manipulative tool that we use with computers. "To google" is just putting the word to another use. "Google" was a proper noun converted to a verb. 

Then there are people out there who create words, words like "blog," which I hate because it's illegitimately derived from "web log" by cutting off the part of one word to create another. That's not how you do it. The normal way is to add suffixes or prefixes.

Otherwise, English gets its words from all over the world. From India we picked up words like "hut" and "thug," from when the British were over there. "Catsup" comes from Indonesia and originally meant fish sauce. Of course, we have borrowed thousands of words from French and Latin.

Q: You love the stories behind some words. Any favorites?

A:  There's a word like "furphy" — Australians use it all the time. It's another word for gossip. There was a company named Furphy that made portable water tanks in the First World War You'd hitch a horse to it and take water from one camp to another. Because these guys would go from one camp to another, they'd bring news and everyone would gather around the Furphy tank to get the latest news. Once it got into the general population, it became the Australian word for gossip.

Q: What attracts you most to language?

A: The thing that distinguishes us from all the species is language. We've discovered that chimpanzees and some other animals actually make tools and do many of the things that we do. But the one thing they can't do is talk. They can communicate and have certain signals — danger on the ground, danger in the sky, danger in the trees. Chimpanzees can do maybe 200 different signs. But what they can't do is create new words and new concepts with words. I'm convinced this is what distinguishes us and this is why we are so far ahead of the next closest species, the chimpanzee, which has 98.4 percent of the same DNA that we have. We're almost identical, but in terms of what they have done on this earth, there just is no comparison.

Most linguists would say the primary function of language is communication. Noam Chomsky and I think the primary function of language is self-expression. What do you need self-expression for? Well, nine times out of 10, it's going to be communication. But he points to the letter he sends to the IRS every year explaining why that portion of his taxes that would go to support the military is not included in his check. He said, "I know no one reads that, but I do it because it is important to me that I express myself." 

Add to that the millions, probably, of poets out there who write poetry that they never intend to publish or show to anybody. The primary purpose of language is self-expression. So that means it is very, very human and very, very personal.

The reason I always do a history of the word is that it tells us a lot about ourselves, our history. The fact that everything associated with the word "black" is evil and everything associated with "white" is good and pure tell us a lot about where we have been and what our attitudes have been historically. If we have a black day, it's a bad day. In the big, great movies, the bad guys used to wear black hats and the good guys white hats.

Q: What impact has technology — e-mail, texting — had on language?

A: One thing that was assumed was that because people were using all these little abbreviations like "lol" (laughing out loud) in messaging that we were losing our writing skills. There was a controlled study done in the U.K. in which students who were on the web a lot and those who had no connection to web were asked to write essays. Guess what? The people on the web did better - because they write more. It's easier and faster so they do more of it. No one believed it. So, the study was repeated in the United States and, guess what, the results were confirmed.

The web has been good in helping us write because you write more. Not only that, you have spellcheckers. If you misspell a word, you see it corrected before your eyes. If you're still using a pencil and paper, you make that mistake over and over again and you don't know about it. This is one aspect of technology that has already had an impact on us and is positive.


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