Words. Words. Words.

People, in general, have an appalling grasp of vocabulary. I’m not even going to begin complaining about grammar; that will have to wait for another day. This post is the beginning of my worldwide attempt (okay, I’ll start with nationwide attempt) to remedy that. Here are a few words that I have used today that have earned me blank stares and/or giggles from the people I was speaking to.

  1. Pandemonium
  2. Dearth
  3. Metacognition

Let’s start with those three. If you don’t already know what they mean, look them up. They’re delightful slivers of our lovely language.

Yes, I really do talk like this. Stop snickering, dang it.

Here’s the part that I find most worrisome: it’s weird that I really do use those words in everyday conversation. The general level of competence amongst English speakers has declined to the point where words of three or more syllables are labeled “$64 million” words, mocked, and not taken seriously. Sometimes it’s assumed that the speaker is just using them to sound pompous (and occasionally, that is the truth) and not because that word is particularly well suited to what is being expressed.

Why should anyone care?

We define our worlds with words. When we think to ourselves, we think in words. We don’t think in a subtle array of color, or in binary code. By learning new words, we gain new pencils with which to sketch the boundaries of our worlds. And when we communicate with each other, we can’t voice our thoughts without the words we need.

Think about the sky and all the different colors you have seen in it. Azure, cerulean, royal blue, teal, robin’s egg blue, navy blue, black, purple, golden, crimson, pink, mauve, grey-white. Can you imagine trying to describe the color of the sky without using more than one word? The more simplistic we try to make our language, the more nuance and detail we eliminate.

sunset sky

Similarly, willingly sacrificing words from our knowledge limits our scope and understanding of the world. We can’t comprehend that which we cannot think in the first place.

Nonverbal cues are crucial as well as words, and this isn’t just a rant about long words. There’s a lot to be said for the art of brevity. This is a plea to learn new words, relish them, and use them. Put them into circulation with your friends, your family, not just for the sake of showing off how smart you are, but for the sake of expanding your universe just the tiniest bit.

P.S. If you caught the Shakespearean reference in the title, you get an official Gold Sticky Star to put on your forehead. If not, watch this and rejoice in the loveliness and madness of words.

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  1. Diane

     /  October 12, 2011

    Your picture reminds me of Emily Dickinson’s “She Sweeps With a Many Colored Broom.” Lovely essay. I will join your nationwide movement!

  2. Amen and Amen! I remember Mrs. Wakefield’s Honor’s English vocabulary list. I knew many of them already, however, I learned more and more that flourished in my daily vocabulary and I still use today. My mom gets a little intimidated when I use big words.


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