Notes: The Big Nine

A FOOTNOTE I CAME across not long ago in Robert Chapman’s New Dictionary of American Slang contained a provocative reference to a study published in 1923 by the lexicographer G.H. Mcknight. Mcknight was interested in knowing which English words are used most commonly in conversation and how often the most commonly used English words occur. He eventually satisfied himself that out of some 600,000 living words in the language, and a few hundred thousand more on various kinds of life support, a mere forty-three account for half the words actually uttered and a mere nine account for fully a quarter of all spoken words. Mcknight’s Big Nine are and, be, have, it, of, the, to, will, and you, and the phenomenon he found at work in spoken English has been found, by other word-frequency studies, in the English used in telephone conversations and in written English of all kinds.

This is the kind of preposterous scientific claim that fairly cries out for independent scrutiny, and so I pulled down from the shelves and out of the drawers and off the refrigerator a selection of English-language texts: the Mayflower Compact, “Jabberwocky,” Spiro Agnews letter of resignation, the introduction to Internal Revenue Service Publication 920 (“Explanation of the lax Reform Act of 1986 for Individuals”), the Boy Scout Oath, “The Marines’ Hymn,” the Miranda rights, which must be read to a suspect, the “Wizard of Id” comic strip that appeared last December 29, a section (“Flooded Engine”) chosen at random from the owner’s manual for a 1987 Colt Vista, a definition (for egestion) chosen at random from Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary, a recipe (for Gratia de Homard et Pâtes aux Légumes) chosen at random from The Ritz-Carlton Cookbook, the first five verses of Saint Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, Mikhail Gorbachev’s remarks upon arriving at the White House, and the first question asked of the nominee by Edward kennedy during the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearings in the matter of Robert Bork. These I subjected to an exhaustive and methodical investigation, in a spirit of cool skepticism, only to discover after many hours that Mcknight’s calculations are astonishingly accurate. To be specific, the percentages compiled by the Big Nine in the texts I examined are 29.7, 23.0, 33.3, 24.6, 25.0, 35.4, 32.1, 21.4, 25.0, 33.3, 26.9, 23.2, 24.6, and 25.7. The overall average is 27.4.

There are some unsurprising things about this group (the absence of please and thank you, for example) and some surprising and even heartening ones (the absence of I), but what has impressed me most about the Big Nine is how potent they are in the company of strangers and how helpless and insubstantial when left to themselves. To be sure, some of these words see each other socially—to and he, of and the—but if all nine were left alone in a room they wouldn’t know what to make of the occasion. I tried composing a thought with only the Big Nine and using each word only once, and could not, unless you don’t regard as cheating this possible colloquy from the Watergate transcripts:

N: “You will be [garbled] of [garbled].”

H: “It [expletive deleted].”

N: “And the . . . ?”

H: “Have to [laughter].”

Yet even in the pained, awkward silence of their gathering the Big Nine cannot hide the potential for significant expression. Insubstantial they may be— there is not a noun among them—but they manage nonetheless to touch on a wide swath of reality: existence (be), things (it), others (you), possessions (of), the past (have), the future (will), and the urge to make lists (and). They are enabling words—cajolers, enhancers, connectors—willing to help keep a conversation going but unable to start one or to suggest a subject. It is possible to speak profoundly without them—“I think, therefore I am”—but not for any length of time.

I admire McKnight’s Big Nine for their economy and efficiency, but I admire them more for their steadfastness. It is hard to imagine how the constitution of this select group could change substantially. On the surface of the language words are free to come and go. Changes in spelling and usage shape the terrain in ways both pleasant and malign. From time to time an especially noxious aberration will send shock waves deep into the mantle. But the Big Nine represent an unassailable core, a place where words will always be stable and pure, even if they are also mute.

Cullen Murphy