If you are a reader, or a writer, or both, at some time, you probably have wondered about what words are the most important ones in our language.
In an article by Richard Nordquist for ThoughtCo., a list of the 100 most important words was drawn up by British rhetorician I.A. Richards, author of several books including “Basic English and Its Uses” (1943).
These words are not the most frequently used words in the English language. This list of words has been chosen more for their meanings, and the importance they have to our language.
According to Nordquist, Richards introduced his list of words in the book “How to Read a Page: A Course in Effective Reading” (1942), and he called them “the most important words” for two reasons:
- They cover the ideas we can least avoid using, those which are concerned in all that we do as thinking beings.
- They are words we are forced to use in explaining other words because it is in terms of the ideas they cover that the meanings of other words must be given.
With these parameters in mind, it’s interesting to think about the words that were chosen to be representative of the 100 most important words in our entire language, isn’t it? And reading over the list, I find myself nodding my head in agreement and saying, “MMM-HMMM…”
Here are those 100 important words:
All these words carry multiple meanings, and they can say quite different things to different readers. For that reason, Richards’ list could just as well have been labeled “The 100 Most Ambiguous Words.
Richards says, “The very usefulness which gives them their importance explains their ambiguity. They are the servants of too many interests to keep to single, clearly defined jobs. Technical words in the sciences are like adzes, planes, gimlets, or razors. A word like “experience,” or “feeling,” or “true” is like a pocketknife. In good hands it will do most things—not very well. In general we will find that the more important a word is, and the more central and necessary its meanings are in our pictures of ourselves and the world, the more ambiguous and possibly deceiving the word will be.”
In earlier writings, Richards had explored the fundamental notion that meaning doesn’t reside in words themselves. Instead, meaning is rhetorical, or fashioned out of both a verbal context (the words surrounding the words) and the experiences of the individual reader. No surprise, then, that miscommunication is often the result when the “important words” come into play.
It’s this idea of mis-communicating through language that led Richards to conclude that all of us are developing our reading skills all the time: “Whenever we use words in forming some judgment or decision, we are, in what may be a painfully sharp sense, ‘learning to read’.” (“How to Read a Page.”)
There are actually 103 words on Richards’ top-100 list. The bonus words, he said, are meant “to incite the reader to the task of cutting out those he sees no point in and adding any he pleases, and to discourage the notion that there is anything sacrosanct about a hundred, or any other number.”
With these thoughts in mind, can you create your own list of the top 100 words in the English language? Would they be important for the same reasons cited above?
I see several on here that I agree with…now I’ve got to put my mind to thinking about some of the others I might rather have in place of some of his suggestions! What about you?
- Nordquist, Richard. “The 100 Most Important Words in English.” ThoughtCo, Feb. 11, 2020, thoughtco.com/important-words-in-english-1692687.