A Defining Passion

Listen / Download

The writer Ilan Stavans loves words. He is a self-confessed “tongue snatcher,” stealing other people’s words and adopting them as his own.

Ever since he was a kid in his native Mexico, he’s been surrounded by languages: from Spanish to Yiddish to Spanglish. He became fascinated with how people blend and co-opt words from other cultures, melting them seamlessly into their native tongue. This love soon grew into an obsession, not just with words but with dictionaries.

According to Stavans, the average American uses 2,000 different words every day, just a fraction of the nearly 200,000 words listed in the Oxford English Dictionary. Stavans wonders if our daily conversations would be richer if people decided to tackle some of those “extra” words: from the proper to the crude to the illicit.


Ilan Stavans, author of “Dictionary Days: A Defining Passion.”