Finding just the right word

vocabulary notebook indology info site“I know nothing in the world that has as much power as a word. Sometimes I write one, and I look at it, until it begins to shine.”  Emily Dickinson

Arriving at a quantitative estimate of the total number of words in any language involves a subjective process of deciding what counts. Should foreign loan words be included? Medical, legal, and scientific terms as well? And how about abbreviations and acronyms? In English, it is often difficult to establish a consensus as to whether certain concepts should be expressed as compound words, hyphenated words, or separate words. Arriving at a qualitative estimate is no easier. New words are invented every day and many old words fade away into oblivion. Editors are forever adding neologisms and dropping words considered archaic from standard dictionaries. While conservative authorities estimate that the English language contains between 200,000 and 350,000 words, the Global Language Monitor claims that English vocabulary passed the one million mark at 10:22 am on June 10, 2011 with the introduction of “Web 2.0” and estimates that a new additional word is introduced every 98 minutes.

 Spanish, on the other hand, has a much smaller vocabulary. Experts estimate that the vocabulary of the English language is about twice as large as the vocabulary of Spanish. For translators working from English to Spanish, this gap infers a tricky process of reduction, and for their counterparts translating Spanish into English, it supposes overcoming the temptation to use the same words repeatedly, a practice that is perfectly acceptable in Spanish but is almost guaranteed to make a text appear sluggish and boring to an English-speaking reader.

armor-with-descriptions-helmet-pauldron-gardbrace-Terminology, defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “the technical or special terms used in a business, art, science, or special subject” makes up only a small part of any language’s vocabulary. That fact should be a comfort to translators who feel like contemporary incarnations of the legendary steel-driving John Henry every time a client presents them with an analysis of fuzzy matches contained in a text to be translated. Over half the words contained in the second edition of the twenty-volume Oxford Dictionary are nouns, a quarter are adjectives, a seventh are verbs, and the rest fall under such categories as exclamations, conjunctions, prepositions, and suffixes. Even if all those nouns could somehow be classified as terms, a translator would still be faced with the daunting but stimulating task of picking through a rich trove of verbs, adjectives, and adverbs, which properly woven together, bring a text to life for the reader. As the eminent translator Edith Grossman points out, “every competent translator has to be a writer, because that is what we do. We write in the guise of the person we are translating.” So translators need to constantly work on their writing skills and broaden their vocabularies. They should also never forget that, like the author of the source language text, they must adjust vocabulary and style for specific target audiences.

“All my life I’ve looked at words as though I were seeing them for the first time.” Ernest Hemingway

I always ask my clients a number of questions related to the anticipated audience of any text I’m asked to translate: Is the PowerPoint presentation going to be made to a group of potential investors, or is it to be used for internal communications purposes? Will the viewers/listeners/readers be native speakers or people for whom English is a second language? Will a given report be submitted to a particular institution such as the European Commission or European Parliament? What group or groups does a company wish to reach through its website content? Is it meant to attract specific groups of native English speakers or would the company prefer that I use a fairly neutral vocabulary that will be clear and appealing to a wider public that uses English as a lingua franca? What kind of reader is the author of a book writing for? As Patricia O’Connor points out in Words Fail Me: What Everyone Who Writes Should Know About Writing, “It’s a big world out there, and before you write you have to narrow it down. Once you’ve identified your audience, everything you do—every decision you make about vocabulary, tone, sentence structure, imagery, humor, and the rest—should be done with this target, your reader, in mind.” She suggests that writers draw a mental picture of their target readers and keep it in the forefront of their minds as they write. As stand-ins for the original authors of texts, translators should take the same advice very much to heart.

“There is no doubt that I have lots of words inside me; but at moments, like rush-hour traffic at the mouth of a tunnel, they jam.” John Updike

 Adjusting vocabulary to suit a specific target readership

“Words have their own hierarchy, their own protocol, their own artistic titles, their own plebeian stigmas.” José Saramago

Once translators have been provided with basic information about the target audience for a given text, what can they do to ensure that the vocabulary and style they employ will resonate with that specific group? Sector-specific glossaries, dictionaries, and house style guides are obviously essential resources. However, given the two-to-one vocabulary ratio between English and Spanish, I always assume that I’ll have to sift through a wide range of options for words that don’t fall into the categories of house style or insider jargon. 

Castle Ashby NorthamptonshireIf prior experience and the contents of translation dictionaries and glossaries prove to be inadequate for the context I’m dealing with, I look up the word used in the source text in María Moliner’s Diccionario del uso del español. From there, I often compare Spanish synonyms for the word I need to translate to synonyms of the most obvious candidates in English. I then do corpus searches to see which have been used in similar Spanish and English texts. That process at least gives me something to chew on. If I’ve been asked to localize a text, I do keyword searches that target geographically specific publications or digital libraries known for the quality of their writing such as the New York Times, the Guardian, or JSTOR.

However, there are other vocabularies that can only be mastered by constantly perusing information written for, or about, specific audiences. Since I translate texts related to a wide range of subjects that range from education, the arts and humanities, communications, history, humanitarian aid, sustainable development and the European Union to tourism, travel, and luxury goods and services, I try to keep current with sector trends and the vocabulary and style used by the most authoritative and articulate publications and organizations in each community or sector.

This type of reading matter almost always contains unexpectedly useful information. For instance, once a year an online educational bulletin I subscribe to features an article about Beloit College’s “Mindset List,” which provides some very interesting clues about what vocabulary one might want to avoid or need to tweak when translating texts for specific age or cohort groups. According to this Beloit College study, members of the incoming class of 2011 have never “rolled down” a car window. The list also notes that “off the hook” has never had anything to do with a telephone for members of this group and that they have always known the country older people still call Burma as Myanmar. The class of 2010 is described as never having heard anyone “ring something up” on a cash register and it is noted that the class of 2003 has probably never dialed a phone or opened an icebox and wouldn’t be able to figure out the size of something described as being “as big as a breadbox.” The list also claims that the class of 2002 wouldn’t make much out of the expression “you sound like a broken record” either. It was interesting to know that the members of the class of 2013 have always seen the word “waitperson” in their dictionaries and the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions “GM” to a member of the class of 2017 is genetically modified food rather than an automobile manufacturer. These are valuable bits of information for communications professionals (translators included) who need to deal with a never-ending barrage of newly coined words and keep track of current usage as the denotations and connotations of words shift and evolve.

“Vocabularies are crossing circles and loops. We are defined by the lines we choose to cross or to be confined by.” A.S. Byatt


The Internet has expanded the horizons of word junkies everywhere. My long list of favorite sites and digital newsletters includes A.Word.a.Day, which the New York Times has described as “the most welcomed, most enduring piece of daily mass e-mail in cyberspace,” TermCoord, a concise, weekly terminology bulletin distributed by the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament, and the Visual Thesaurus’s Word a Day. I get a lot out of the Stack Exchange’s English Language & Usage Weekly newsletter because the Stack Exchange forum connects people searching for just the right word to describe people, things, and concepts with hard-core vocabulary addicts. As participants from almost every corner of the planet submit queries, it’s the perfect place to ponder the options available for transferring cultural concepts expressed in other languages to English. Writers using English as a second language tend to query about the shades of difference between two English words. The answers to questions such as “Is there really any difference between bristle and stubble when the subject is facial hair?” and “What’s a good word for someone who likes to always be different?” can be very useful to a translator looking for just the right descriptive word. This site also dishes up some lively discussions about grammar questions and editing decisions and provides insight into English vocabulary use throughout the world and in different subcultures. I also consult the Stack languages Spanish Language and Usage site for information about Spanish words. Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words Newsletter explores words from an etymological point of view. One of the features I like most about this weekly bulletin is the feedback it generates from readers all over the world. Its website is a treasure trove of knowledge about the ever-changing English language, complete with an entertaining “weird words” section.

“Words and magic were in the beginning one and the same thing, and even today words retain much of their magical power.” Sigmund Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis

A brief vocabulary sampler from some of the above-mentioned sources

Scientific words:

 entomophilous (the Visual Thesaurus)

When -phily or -philous appear in a word there’s often a whole lotta love going on. In today’s word, it’s love of insects, and plants are doing the loving. Entomophilous plants are ones that are pollinated by insects. The roots of the word are Greek for “insect” (entomon), and for “dear, friendly” (philos).

Equivalent terminology used by the European Parliament (TermCoord)

EN: European Prosecutor / European Public Prosecutor

SP: Fiscal Europeo

FR: procureur européen

EN: Connecting Europe Facility

SP: Instrumento de Interconexión para Europa (IIE)

FR: Mécanisme pour l’interconnexión en Europe

EN: Botnet

SP: botnet / red infectada

FR: réseau de machines zombies / réseau zombie

Forgotten words:

 swoopstake (A.Word:a.Day)

adverb: In an indiscriminate manner. Alteration of sweepstake, from sweep + stake, originally referring to the winner who takes all. Earliest documented use: 1599.

Usage: “I replied by falling swoopstake and cropneck in love with them all, damn it, them all.” Kathleen Tynan in Tynan Letters published by Vintage in 2012.

(Cropneck is also a nice, forgotten word derived from the expression “neck and crop,” which according to Merriam Webster means to do something with “with brisk dispatch and completeness.”)

Words and phrases with obscure etymologies:

picayune (the Visual Thesaurus)

Though it started life as a noun designating a coin of small value, picayune is today an adjective synonymous with trivial, paltry or petty. The word is derived from Portuguese or Occitan but was introduced to English in the US, from the coin called a picayune being in circulation in colonial North America. The Times-Picayune, a newspaper in New Orleans, is named for the coin.

blatherskite (World Wide Words)

In a nutshell, a word of Old Norse / Scots origin used to describe a person who spouts rubbish or the ridiculous things he says that is now heard more often in the United States than in Great Britain. See the World Wide Words website for the full story.


Question: What is the antonym of the verb to ameliorate? (Stack Exchange English Language and Usage)

Nice answer offered by user 49727: I don’t think there is an antonym that ends with an –iorate because the words ameliorate and meliorate derive from a single stem (see below). The closest etymological antonym is aggravate. Ameliorate comes from French meilleur and ameliorer – the direct French antonym for this word is aggraver meaning ‘to make worse’.