The Anatomy of Words.

We owe a lot to Shakespeare and possibly hamburgers.

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Courtesy of Dreamstime

It’s only words, and words are all I have,” Barry Gibb, The BeeGees

If we counted all the words in this world, we’d discover we use about one tenth of them. Of that one tenth, most are common words or phrases, meaning we can’t think of the word we really want. We could look up synonyms, except we can’t spell “synonyms” so that isn’t much help, either.

If we Googled “What’s another word for sex?” we’d get: sexual intercourse, intercourse, lovemaking, making love, sex act, sexual relations. None of these help if you want actual sex. Saying “Let’s have a sex act” makes you sound like a circus trainer.

He finally went with “I want your sex” because sex is easier to figure out than a person’s complexities.

Supposedly George Michael wanted another word for his song “I Want Your Sex,” but couldn’t think of one. In fact, if you listen to the lyrics, he doesn’t even want sex. He just wants the other person to understand he’s shallow. He finally went with “I want your sex” because sex is easier to figure out than a person’s complexities.

I should have put “sex” in the title of this piece, too, but I put “hamburger” instead. People like hamburgers — just not as much as sex. Actually, they like them about the same.

William Shakespeare invented over 1,700 words. Mostly, he turned nouns into verbs, changed verbs into adjectives, or connected words like “bloodstained.”Nobody seemed to mind, since most Elizabethans were illiterate. Words like “barefaced” and “besmirched” took hold because people had no reason to believe they weren’t words already.

Shakespeare knew approximately 66,534 words. The average person knows between 10,000 and 20,000. A quarter of those words are software terms, sports or marketing idioms, or the names of breakfast cereals. If someone’s acting crazy, we say they’re either “fruitloops” or “cuckoo for cocoa puffs.” The latter came about because of Sonny the Cuckoo Bird, a mascot invented by General Mills. Sonny was more of an asshole than crazy.

We’d be much happier cutting to the chase with a term like “Burger me.”

I put “hamburger” in the title because it demonstrates how we use words today. If we’re asked to describe a hamburger, we say “Big Mac,” “Whopper,” or “Dave’s Hot ‘n Juicy.”

MacDonald’s tried to expand our vocabulary with “Two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame bun.” It was a cute novelty, but we hate reciting marketing when we’re hungry. We’d be much happier cutting to the chase with a term like “Burger me.”

We also have trouble with “tissue” and “photocopy,” preferring “Kleenex” and “Xerox.” For years, women asked men if they had a “Sheik” instead of a condom. It wasn’t brand loyalty. Nobody knew any other name. If we bought something different, it was because we grabbed it so fast. The night we picked up “ribbed” by mistake was the best mistake we ever made.

As our relationships blossomed, however, more embarrassing purchases were required, including Tampax, which fill an entire aisle, and Pampers, which fill everything Tampax doesn’t fill. By coincidence or design, women stop using Tampax about the same time men start using Tampax Manpons and Pampers.

That’s why Vespas outsell Harleys, and men assert their manliness by wearing their shirts open.

Shakespeare was obviously onto something when he turned nouns into verbs. Today, we Hoover the rug, pour Kraft on our salads and Cuisinart our smoothies. This has become the anatomy of words where proper names define what we’re doing — and how well we’re doing it.

For instance, nobody says they drive a car anymore. That’s like naming your kids “Kids.” Your car, truck or motorcycle defines you. Riding a Harley is obviously more manly than riding a Vespa, although in Europe, being manly isn’t nearly as important as finding a parking spot. That’s why Vespas outsell Harleys, and men assert their manliness by wearing their shirts open.

And just as we choose hamburgers according to number of patties, we do the same with our razors. Who buys single blade razors anymore? It’s a wonder we got by with two blades, just as it’s a wonder we got by with Dave’s Double burger.

Women’s products also have Shakespeare to thank for descriptives like “lustrous,” “radiance” and “generous.”

Marketing has also played a big role in descriptives. Just like Shakespeare created “bloodstained,” marketers are now using “freshcut,” as in “freshcut fries.” If marketers follow Shakespeare’s example, we’ll soon lose hyphens entirely, joining dual-exhaust, oven-ready, water-based and teeth-whitening. Condoms now come with a warning about hyper-allergic reactions. How long before hyper-allergic is one word — if it isn’t already?

Women’s products also have Shakespeare to thank for descriptives like “lustrous,” “radiance” and “generous.” Marketing teams haven’t come up with anything better in six hundred years. You could call that a lackluster performance, except Shakespeare invented “lackluster,” too.

So the whole anatomy of today’s modern language has really come down to one man, with the rest of us adding the occasional idiom, none of which will last another twenty years (including Xerox and Kleenex).

We can’t even say we came up with “advertising,” since Shakespeare created that, too — not to mention “marketable.” How his words have lasted so long is anybody’s guess, but we shouldn’t be disheartened (one of his), or discouraged (one of his as well). We can always say we came up with “selfie,” “twerk” and “phablet.” I left out “awesome” because he created that, too.

Better that we make the most of “selfie” since it won’t last another two years.

That leaves us with hamburgers, folks. We can name them, describe them, even eulogize them, but that’s pretty much all we can do. Better that we make the most of “selfie” since it won’t last another two years. “Twerk” is probably gone already, and “phablet” will go when screens are projected on our hands.

If all this makes you feel gloomy or worthless, Shakespeare came up with those as well. I guess you could call that a monumental achievement. Maybe that’s why he came up with “monumental” and “olympian.”

At least he didn’t come up with “ribbed,” but he did invent “arose,” “amazement” and “blushing,” so he was in the same ballpark. In fact, they were already looking at sheep’s intestines as a form of birth control, which fit right in with Shakespeare’s word: “marketable” again.

By the way, any history buffs who want to criticize my accuracy here should remember, Shakespeare came up with “criticize,” too.

At least he didn’t come up with “burger me.” Now I just have to come up with 1,699 more.

Robert Cormack is a novelist, children’s book author and blogger. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive)” is available online and at most major bookstores.

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I did a poor imitation of Don Draper for 40 years before writing my first novel. I'm currently in the final stages of a children's book. Lucky me.

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