I currently serve in the construction field, where the average vocabulary consists of profanity, defamatory dialogue, blasphemy and perpetual derision. My co-workers have the uncanny ability to steer any discussion toward (a) a bodily function or (b) a sexual act (which they affectionately call â€“ close your ears — â€œdick talkâ€). Needless to say, I do not work with the most enlightened bunch.
So it was surprising when one of my colleagues approached the other day and asked me to define a word. He displayed a newspaper and pointed to the word â€œegregious.â€ Luckily, I know what that word means, so I told him. This reinforced my standing as an odd duck and gave them another word in their arsenal, for they immediately began joking about their â€œegregious thoughtsâ€ toward members of the opposite sex.
Nevertheless, I wrote the word on my desk calendar, along with a growing list of other words. They are:
Occasionally, the men I work with will glance at this list, because I have a new one every month. The one on my desktop at home is much more extensive. I am not terribly educated (in fact, I barely graduated high school), but Iâ€™ve learned to love words, and am constantly seeking to incorporate new ones into my vocabulary. I know what â€œegregiousâ€ means, but itâ€™s not a part of my active vocabulary; same with â€œequivocate,â€ â€œnebulous,â€ â€œgrouseâ€ and oodles of others.
Michael M. Spear is Associate Professor of the Journalism Program at the University of Richmond, Virginia. In a short, but wonderful article entitled, â€œLingually Challenged,â€ http://oncampus.richmond.edu/academics/journalism/chal.html he writes this:
What reporter, after using a word a bit above the level of a high school dropout, has not heard an editor exclaim with a scowl: “What is this word?” Or, “Who do you think you are writing for, anyway? We’re trying to communicate here.” I used to wonder: With whom?
I’m not advocating that journalists go into feeding frenzies over words, then produce pompous sentences filled with esoteric words. But if writers have an interest in words, even if they work for newspapers, shouldn’t they occasionally slip in a “lugubrious,” a “conundrum” a “feckless” an “ignominy” if the sentence calls for it, if it is the appropriate word for the context?
And even if reporters are largely handcuffed, why should copy editors and columnists be held in check? What wordsmith hasn’t enjoyed the sound of esoteric words slipping like silk from the mouth of William Buckley, or appreciated the way Maureen Dowd can use “uxorious” in her columns or enjoyed Molly Ivins’ playfulness with “retromingent.”
Unfortunately, the use of multi-syllable words still often invites attack, or, at least eye-rolling. But if we are influenced by this, aren’t we relegating ourselves to a rather barren landscape of expression?
Richard Lederer, a lion among linguistics, tells us that English is the most cheerfully democratic language in the history of mankind. It has 616,500 entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. This compares with a vocabulary of about 185,000 words for German, 130,000 for Russian, and 100,000 for French. Yet the average English speaker possesses a vocabulary of 10,000 to 20,000 words, Lederer observes, but actually uses only a fraction of that, the rest being recognition or recall vocabulary.
“The most articulate verbivore interacts with only one-sixth of our English word hoard and actually employs only one-sixth of that,” he writes in his introduction to
Eugene Ehrlich’s book, The Highly Selective Dictionary for the Extraordinarily
Literate, a sniffish title sure to scare off some.
I concur with Mr. Spear that â€œthe use of multi-syllable words still often invites attack, or, at least eye-rolling,â€ because Iâ€™ve been the object of these attacks and watched the collective eye-rolling of the Neanderthals I work alongside. Were I to call them â€œan obdurate bunch,â€ Iâ€™d be met with vacant stares. Now, if I said they were a bunch of â€œdumb sh*ts,â€ I could solicit the necessary laughter. But, â€œobdurate,â€ rolls of the tongue far better.
I recently returned from a fishing trip in Mexico. Any good fisherman understands the importance of having the right equipment: a good rod and reel (preferably several of them), an assortment of jigs (some for topwater, others for deep), the appropriate line, hooks, sinkers and, of course, motion sickness pills. What separates a â€œgood fishermanâ€ from the rest of us is, among other things, their equipment and how they use it.
In a way, words are the â€œequipmentâ€ of communication. Itâ€™s been suggested that, a word is not truly integrated into someoneâ€™s â€œtackle boxâ€ until it is used in ordinary conversation at least three times. If there are 616, 500 words at our disposal, and â€œthe average English speaker possesses a vocabulary of 10,000 to 20,000 words,â€ then we have a lot of room to grow.
So I read with pen in hand . . . and my list keeps growing. My goal is not to equivocate or be nebulous, grouse or appear garish, but to transcend the obdurate, indolent masses, eschew egregious linguistics and rise above the “rather barren landscape of expression.”