8.20.2005

On Words: One

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 – close your ears --- “dick talk”). 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 “egregious.” 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 “egregious thoughts” 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:

Equivocate

Nebulous

Grouse

Garish

Obdurate

Indolent

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 I’ve learned to love words, and am constantly seeking to incorporate new ones into my vocabulary. I know what “egregious” means, but it’s not a part of my active vocabulary; same with “equivocate,” “nebulous,” “grouse” 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, “Lingually Challenged,” 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 “the use of multi-syllable words still often invites attack, or, at least eye-rolling,” because I’ve been the object of these attacks and watched the collective eye-rolling of the Neanderthals I work alongside. Were I to call them “an obdurate bunch,” I’d be met with vacant stares. Now, if I said they were a bunch of “dumb sh*ts,” I could solicit the necessary laughter. But, “obdurate,” 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 “good fisherman” from the rest of us is, among other things, their equipment and how they use it.

In a way, words are the “equipment” of communication. It’s been suggested that, a word is not truly integrated into someone’s “tackle box” until it is used in ordinary conversation at least three times. If there are 616, 500 words at our disposal, and “the average English speaker possesses a vocabulary of 10,000 to 20,000 words,” 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."

3 comments:

Gina Holmes said...

Mike, great idea: a new word each month. Funny, in one of my stories I used "zephyr" which, of course means light breeze. I learned that word back in highschool and actually use it now and again. But don't you know I received so many comments on that word. That it stuck out like a sore thumb among my otherwise down to earth vocabulary.

I can't stand something strewn with pompous phrases that I have to stop and look up BUT I love when I learn a new word that I can figure out the meaning to in context of the paragraph.
I'm going to go look up egregious and a few others. Thanks for the mental challenge. I think you're right on regarding your willingness to stretch your mind, along with those of your readers. Just don't get too magisterial or pontificial. Hey, maybe you can start a penwright's new word of the week? That'd be cool.

Mike Duran said...

Gina, you're right about not speaking over our reader's heads. But does this mean my co-workers are not obdurate?

Gina Holmes said...

Moths fly in and out of Gina's ears as she considers the question. Uh...yes? The trick is to use the word in a context where the reader can figure out its meaning without lugging out her Webster. Don't be faineant in your usage of those substantial locutions. :)