Vivacious Vocabularies

One reason I love reading C.S. Lewis arises from his adroit use of the English language. His vocabulary is immense. It is pleasant to run into words one seldom encounters on the drab byways of modern journalism and tangled thoroughfares of contemporary “social media.”

Consider the following example. I was exploring The Allegory of Love when I read this: “There is nothing in literature which does not, in some degree, percolate into life.”

What a delightful verb! It evokes for me recollections of my youth when my parents would refer to our coffee pot as the percolator. Simultaneously, it reminds me of more recent—less happy—usages: “I’m sorry, but inadequate soil percolation means you’ll have to install a far more expensive septic system than normally required.”

It’s discouraging when you consider the sad state of modern vocabularies. I read somewhere that people typically only use about 10% of the words they know. So a common vocabulary of 5,000 spoken words would mean they know (i.e. can recognize written or audible forms of) about 50,000 words. Shakespeare used 29,000 words in his plays and sonnets, suggesting an expansive vocabulary. Likewise, brilliant authors like C.S. Lewis would boast a praiseworthy mental dictionary.

I am sometimes curious about my own vocabulary. I consciously attempt—in conversation as well as writing—to utilize at least 15% of the words I know. After all, the English language is so rich, it’s criminal to limit ourselves to pedestrian words. It’s like having all the ingredients for a delicious feast available to us and settling for slapping together a peanut butter sandwich.

I also love the precision that comes from using the exact word that suits the occasion. For example, in a thriller it matters greatly how the hero’s nemesis inflicts injury. A skilled writer would never say “Professor Moriarty cut Holmes.” Instead, we would learn that he slashed . . . stabbed . . . sliced . . . scarred . . . carved . . . or perhaps he merely nicked the detective. Likewise, we would probably know the type of weapon he was using. It would not be a mere “knife.” It might be a saber . . . a dagger . . . a pocketknife . . . scalpel . . . carving knife . . . or perhaps even a bayonet.

Lewis addressed this richness in vocabulary in an essay on “Transposition” which appears in The Weight of Glory.

If the richer system is to be represented in the poorer at all, this can only be by giving each element in the poorer system more than one meaning. The transposition of the richer into the poorer must, so to speak, be algebraical, not arithmetical. If you are to translate from a language which has a large vocabulary into a language that has a small vocabulary, then you must be allowed to use several words in more than one sense. If you are to write a language with twenty-two vowel sounds in an alphabet with only five vowel characters than you must be allowed to give each of those five characters more than one value. If you are making a piano version of a piece originally scored for an orchestra, then the same piano notes which represent flutes in one passage must also represent violins in another.

It is wonderful to be fortunate enough to speak a language with a diverse vocabulary. English is such a tongue. Now, if we could just simplify its complexities and purge its irregularities, we would enjoy the best of all linguistic worlds.

19 thoughts on “Vivacious Vocabularies

  1. Sigh. The world of words – really magical. So rich and exact. Wish more schools explored them…then maybe the local news reporters wouldn’t always be at a loss for accurate words
    We had a percolator coffee pot, too!
    Enjoyed the word romp.

    1. Speaking of schools . . . our families are important “educators” as well. A 2008 study found that preschooler vocabularies varied greatly between “different classes” in the U.S.

      Preschoolers in professional families averaged “exposure” to 2150 different words, preschoolers in working-class families to 1250 words, while that number was halved in households on welfare, with exposure to merely 620. How tragic!

      When our children were growing up, it was not uncommon to pull out a dictionary during our dinner meal. We taught our kids that expanding your vocabulary was a normal (fun) dimension of life. I doubt the same can be said in homes centered around televisions with individual meals eaten in silence.

      1. Research has proved kids do not pick up vocabulary from TV. And even if the media was using rich vocabulary, if the view doesn’t turn around and use “new” words in their everyday conversations, the words never become part of the individual’s word tool box. Sorry, Sesame Street. The truth is out.
        Parents are the first teachers. Even in the best all day daycares, can’t take the place of a stable caring parent. (research show kids pick up mostly social behaviors – survival in a crowd – and are stressed and exhausted)
        The reality of so many parents working is the rationale for schools/federal programs trying to get all kids into pre-k classes to get them “ready” for school ( have enough language to learn).
        But to me 3 yr olds in all day classes and riding school buses is a big red flag for other child development issues which also have life long results.
        I see both sides, but the needs of the”whole child” must be considered – I can easily teach a 3yr old to read, but that’s not always appropriate. They are not lab rats.
        It’s a big problem for today’s society. Need to decide what’s important.

  2. Excellent point on that comment, robstroud. My parents are professionals and when I married my darling husband, I had to pull out the dictionary to explain what my words meant!
    Living in Germany I ended up telling everybody, “German’s grammar is hard. It’s vocabulary is easy.” All the big words were compounds of straightforward little ones. That is very close to the opposite of English, but I wouldn’t trade it in!
    Mostly, I write for kids (and easy-reading adults). I find conscious pleasure in getting away with some of my more succinct terms when writing for adults (like this comment), but then I have to pull out the dictionary again to spell them! Ah, well.

  3. Because we are both word lovers, I recently bought my 9-year-old granddaughter a Nook. The look-up function makes learning new words both easy and gratifying; and I hope she will use it to stimulate her imagination as well as her memory. Naturally I included the Chronicles among her books!

  4. Eimi

    I concur wholeheartedly! Vocabulary is one of the fascinating features in translating between Ancient Greek and English, being that our language has many more words, allowing precision, while theirs has far fewer, inviting interpretation. I find it admirable that despite their smaller vocabulary, the Greeks employed the four loves more accurately than us modern folks.

  5. Dell McDonald

    Words and language are extremely important. I read your blogs with great interest. Having visited many countries and dealt with limited vocabulary it is always a joy to return to my native land and have a rich large vocabulary available for use. It is fulfilling to have a plethora of words to choose from.

    1. Yes, Dell, you are a true world traveler. Like you, I am amazed by the skill of our foreign friends in being able to communicate in English as a second or third language! Still, it’s nice to get home and not have to consciously concentrate on limiting our vocabulary.

  6. Very nicely put! Language is, of course, a tool, and like any tool there are those who grab whatever comes to hand, however inappropriate, to do a job, and then there are those who enjoy the work so much they come to love their tools, choose the best ones, and lavish care and affection on them.

    I am in the middle of a series of posts on language myself, ( and I would love to hear your thoughts.

    1. Tools provide an effective analogy. My brother is a man of few words, but a highly skilled carpenter. I on the other hand . . . am content to know the difference between flat and phillips head screwdrivers. Thus, it’s not unknown for me to use a less-than-optimal tool when it comes to mechanical matters. But when it comes to word choice, that’s a very different beast.

  7. Vocabulary is vital and I love learning about new words. Our language is complicated at times, but beautiful. My mother once told me when she was in the air force and stationed in Germany, one of the women there told her English was one of the most complicated languages to learn. I saw a comment you made above about how many words children are exposed to in different households, so sad. I guess I’m just so used to having books abound and being excited about teaching my daughter new things that it floors me.

  8. I love this! Part of the reason I started my blog is to work on my writing. I have always been interested in figuring out how to put my vocabulary to work for me. I guess, like anything, it takes practice and perseverance.

  9. I used the word, “vernacular” once in college and someone – a good ten or 15 years older than me, even – said, “Gretchen, you use words no one else uses” – he was wrong…he just didn’t have any friends with good vocabularies! And ‘vernacular” isn’t even that weird of a word!

    1. You’re right. Too often people in such circles hear a well educated, articulate individual and consider them “ostentatious.” Ironically, it’s simply a matter of vocabularies, and the ability to use them.

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