I ran across an article in the NYTimes today, that caught my eye. (Isn’t that an odd remark though? I don’t want anything really to catch my eye. It sounds like it would hurt!) I digress again.
The Times has an embedded gizmo that when you hover over a word, it hyperlinks it to the dictionary and you can see what it means. Some higher-ups in the organization figured it might be interested to know what words people were looking up.
This makes sense to me, since who wants to use words that your readers don’t know? I assume people can give up and go elsewhere, particularly when there are so many elsewheres to go to on the Internet.
I looked at the list of words, which can be found here, and well, I have to say, I didn’t actually know the meaning of a good many of them. I have seen most of them in print before, but if asked, I couldn’t give a very good definition.
That raises two big issues for me. Why do I apparently read so many words, not really knowing what they mean without bothering to look them up? That is a deep failing on my part, to be sure. I can of course come up with plenty of excuses. One doesn’t always have a dictionary at hand, I’m too busy sometimes, I have a good idea from the context? (usually wrong I find), and well, got an hour? I can come up with more.
For instance as to context. I have seen the word laconic hundreds of times. I actually thought it meant lazy, drowsy, uninterested, something like that.It certainly soundslike a word that would be lazy doesn’t it. It kinda falls off the lips in a languid late summery kind of way. It actually means “concise.” Who would have thought. Like law, things are not always, or even usually what they sound like, look like, or logically should be.
The second thing I realized is that, although I read more than say the average person, (I figure I do at least), and I write a good three thousand words a day between posting, commenting and so on, I have a rather abysmal command over all of the language. I mean, I seriously didn’t do well at defining most of these words.
A few weeks ago, the Contrarian and I watched the finals of the kids spelling bee. We had never watched before, and it was amusing and rather amazing to watch these kids spell truly awful words, almost all of which I had never heard. I learned that they learn not only thousands of these obscure words but they also are experts at language, original languages, word structure, and all that goes into building words. The area is called I believe, linguistics, LIN GUIS TICS.
I had actually learned a bit of that in thinking at one time I might like to be a medical transcriber. You learn root words and then it’s often pretty easy to figure out what a word means. You just break it into its constituent parts.
Still, it didn’t occur to me frankly that I was so word stupid. Now if someone like me, who writes reasonably coherently, with something a bit beyond the “Dick meets Jane” vocabulary, is really fairly wordless, then what does this say about the state of English in America at large?
Especially so, when we face the onslaught of “twittering” and “texting?” This says nothing at all of those old standbys “black English” and probably other ethnic “sub languages” that are prevalent in our larger cities. Are we facing the demise of English as we know it?
I don’t know, and I further don’t know if it really matters or not. If we can communicate in the manner necessary to get our point across, then perhaps it doesn’t. I would argue that the plethora of words at our disposal is intended, at least in part, to make available to us a precision in statement. No doubt in diplomatic circles, business, medicine and physics, to name a few, such precision is essential. It might literally mean the difference between life and death. As to whether I need it to chat with a friend over coffee, not so much.
I guess what is troubling is how this wordiness is acquired. It doesn’t seem to come with the “territory” of writing. I can testify that it doesn’t come with “reading the dictionary” either. The Contrarian professes that he did just that as a young man, and well, he can’t spell at all, and doesn’t seem to use especially confounding terms either.
So, are all you users of “big words” people, who wear out dictionaries surreptitiously looking up words, doing it to astound and piss off the rest of us? Again, I have no clue. Sorry, I not being at all laconic here am I? (*smirk*)
So if you have a clue how I got so dull in the word world, please give it to me. I would dearly love to know. Perhaps I’m just sui generis, who knows. Or perhaps I’m more of a abstruse individual. In any case, I’m——
Pat - Arkansas said:
I very much enjoyed this post, Sherry! I’m a “word person” but not to the extent that I actually use, or take much pleasure in using, out-of-the ordinary words — unless nothing else will do; preciseness is sometimes absolutely essential. It’s just that I like to find them, savor them, and let them roll around on my tongue before being stored, temporarily or otherwise, in my mental filing cabinet. I get an extreme, if slightly perverse, pleasure from encountering a word I do *not* know. Sometimes, I can deduce the meaning from the context, but not always, such as your discovery of “laconic.” Sounds lazy to me, too. Who would have thought?
One of the choice discoveries of my freshman year in college was the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary, proudly displayed on top of a long row of card files in the library. Since I was non-social anyway, I spent many an evening there just reading the OED.
There exists a lovely book “Caught in the Web of Words” by K.M. Elisabeth Murray, a biography of her grandfather, James Murray, the genius who was the driving force behind the creation of the OED. I found it fascinating reading.
Pat I can tell you are a real word person, just by the way you write. It sounds like the book you mentioned would be very interesting. Just the sort of thing the Contrarian would appreciate reading. I’ll have to look it up for him. And I might just take a peek too! lol…
I love words and this was a very thought-provoking post. Like you, I am too lazy to look up words while I’m reading if I think I know what they mean from the context. I always thought laconic meant the way, say, John Wayne spoke, kind of the same thing you thought. Who knew???
I value words and the precision that picking the right word can bring to the meaning of what is being written. You’ve inspired me to look things up more often!
I do not mean to be oblique in response to your modest query, and am reticent to bespeak any divergent opinion…. but with all candor…
it ain’t the words, but the way one smiles when speaking &thats the Stuff&such!!
Maui, I’ve determined to keep a dictionary a bit closer at hand that I have been. That’s my promise to self. I’m wondering now if I ever used laconic improperly? I’m frightened I did. Nice to know you were a boob and never knew it. LOL..
HAH Jim, I knew all those! And yeah, I get it, a pretty face goes a long way!
Randal Graves said:
My take is similar to Pat’s. Brevity is the soul of groovetasticness or whatever that old saw is, but sometimes you want to toss out a multisyllabic stumper. Or even a polysyllabic one, complete with echoes.
Long live the OED.
Haha Randal, coming from you? You mesmerize and stupify me quite regularly. Perhaps not with the words but with the way you stick them together!