Tuesday, 13 April 2010


It would be interesting—well, fairly interesting—to know how many words we have in English to express approval or admiration.

One way to find out would be to look up, say, "good" in an online thesaurus or synonym dictionary, then follow the trail of all the words you get through all the other thesauruses you can find online and paste all the lists into a database. Write a few lines of code to eliminate the duplicates, then decide how far you go in excluding obscure, obsolete, slang, dialect 'gradely'), and facetious coinages ('splendiferous'), and you will finish up with a very long list. Anyone who would like to attempt this task (or has a better way of doing it) should send me his or her list, and if it has a total of two thousand or more (and I agree with the principle of the exclusions) I will send a cheque for $50 to some appropriate charity.

Some readers may ask why I am doing this.

Having obtained such a list I would present a copy of it to certain moderately well educated people of my acquaintance (no names, they know who they are) in order to shame them by pointing out that they demean themselves by the way in which they always use the same adjective when they want to tell you that they like something. With thousands to choose from, they cannot be bothered to find something fresh and really apt, so from laziness and habit out comes the same tired old word, time after time, whether they are describing the weather, a play, an ascent of Everest, a steak, a pole vault, a book, a hat, a pile ointment, a lover, or whatever....he (she, it) is (was) FANTASTIC!

Or, often, absolutely fantastic!


Grumio said...

What a super idea.

Really excellent.


Indeed, it's positively skookum.

Froog said...

Would supercalifragilisticexpialidocious be excluded as a "facetious coinage" or merely as too unwieldy for routine usage?

Tony said...

I cannot think why you bothered to type this out. It would be excluded because it is a very silly coinage from a feeble song in a rotten film and it annoys me.

Froog said...

Sorry to annoy, Mr B. I strive for creative vexation rather than malicious aggravation.

It takes but a jiffy to cut & paste the bothersome word from Wikipedia!

Froog said...

Not that I'm any expert, but Chinese seems to err in the other direction: there seems to be a marked lack of diversity in the vocabulary, even for the commonest and most useful of concepts.

There are various intensifiers you can add to hao ('good'), but the only other phrases I've come across which seem to have become general expressions of approbation are:

bu lai - quaintly understated; always makes me think of an Englishman saying something like "not too shabby"

piao liang - the most common expression of admiration in sporting commentaries; if addressed directly to a person, it puts me in mind of the Australian expression "you beaut!"

li hai - which, as I encounter it, seems remarkably close to the French "Formidable!"

You've given me an idea for a new post, Mr B.

Tony said...

It was a jiffy wasted, nothing creative there.

But full marks for trying; I can't do creativity and anyway malice is much more fun

JES said...

I agree malice is much more fun. (Mephistopheles v. Faust, etc. etc.)

For that reason, I suspect that compiling a list of English words for "bad" might simplify the problem. A little button or checkbox on the "show results" form would permit a user to "Display antonyms only" -- automatically prefixing each "bad" with "not ", "non-", "un-", "anti-", etc. You'd hit your two thousand easily, without even having to touch all the ways to say "good" without, er, negating the bad.

But, damn, then there's that "principle of the exclusions" clause... I guess you'd want to exclude automatically generated coinages too, wouldn't you?

Tony said...

Well, yes, but I never actually wanted to see a list. I just wanted to mock those who use only fantastic.

JES said...

Whew. In that case, I'm glad I posted the start of the list over at Froog's place.

Maybe it's got something to do with online facelessness -- the same impulse that led to the birth of emoticons and three-letter-acronyms like LOL. People aren't comfortable with simply telling you their response; they need to intensify it somehow, as though in a weak attempt to make you feel the same way or at least to remove all doubt that they really, really mean it. "Good" seems like damnation with faint praise.

And then, as with most tasks anymore, they reach for the nearest shortcut.

I know: none of this really helps or excuses!