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What about lunch, and dinner?

According to the Oxford University Press, the 10 most commonly used nouns in the English language are, in order: time, person, year, way, day, thing, man, world, life and hand.

I don’t have standing to argue with the Oxford University Press — not that lack of standing, or information, has ever kept me out of an argument — but this list seems fishy. I’m fairly sure that in the conversation and correspondence I’m a party to, time is not the most commonly used noun. People must be asking each other what time it is an awful lot. Does nobody have a watch?

And hand in the top 10? It doesn’t appear to me that people talk about hands all that much. I suppose it’s possible that people are seeking assistance from their neighbors (“Give me a hand”) more than I realized. They’re probably saying “Hand me that thingamabob” too, but in that case, hand is a verb, not a noun. (At first, I was suspicious of the absence of both love and hate, but then I realized that when people say “I love/hate somebody/something” they too are using verbs, not nouns.)

OUP says that its list is “corpus-based.” A corpus is a big computerized data base, compiled in this case by researchers “using the Internet to examine newspapers, weblogs, bulletin boards and fiction.” Maybe that’s the problem. Too much researching, not enough listening.



How’d you like to swing on a cat?

Two more contributors to our discussion of “not room to swing a cat” have come forward. Doris Whitaker and Dr. Douglas E. Young tell essentially the same story. Both recall a saying they heard years ago: “Not room to cuss a cat without getting hair in your mouth.” Ms. Whitaker adds, “I believe that ‘swing’ may have been substituted for ‘cuss’ by uptight folks who didn’t like to use the word ‘cuss’ (or ‘swear’) and then dropped the rest of the expression because it no longer fit.”


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