Archives For Language

Vivacious Vocabularies

October 24, 2012 — 19 Comments

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.

English is a fascinating language. Certainly not the simplest to learn, but extremely versatile. You might say that among the circus of languages, English is the contortionist. (That analogy might make German the strong man and Romani the fortune teller.  As for the bearded lady . . . I’ll leave that to your personal conjecture.)

I’ve formally studied several other languages, yet I consider myself a master of none. Nevertheless, when it comes to English, I do take some pride in my skills, and would be willing to claim for myself the status of journeyman. Among other credentials I have my “verbal” score on the Graduate Record Exam, which placed me in the 97th percentile.

It goes without saying that C.S. Lewis (along with most of his fellow Inklings) was a Master of English. One of his many insights warned of language’s occasional tendency to confuse rather than illuminate.

Language exists to communicate whatever it can communicate. Some things it communicates so badly that we never attempt to communicate them by words if any other medium is available. (C.S. Lewis, Studies in Words).

As much as I discover about English, I find there is still more to learn. This week I enjoyed thinking about contranyms. It’s uncommon enough a word that you know your spell checker won’t recognize it. One of those words only an English major is expected to know.

We all know, of course, what synonyms and antonyms are. Useful little tools for playful manipulation of language. A contranym is a word that possesses two “contradictory” meanings. For example a “citation” which can be awarded for either good or issued for bad behavior. Or, consider “literally,” which has its literal meaning as well as its recently developed and contradictory definition of “figuratively.” For lovers of words that’s a particularly discomforting contranym, and it literally makes my head explode. (No, seriously, please don’t ever write or say something like that unless it is in the form of dialog you’re composing for a semi-literate character.)

There are many more examples.

“They left for London, without a thought as to the luggage they left at the station.”

“He was certainly bound for jail if they discovered the Internal Revenue agent he had left bound in his basement.”

“He buckled his belt a mere moment before his legs buckled beneath him as he was struck by the errant meteorite.”

“Apparently there are many thoughtless oversights when programs are left to governmental oversight.”

Homophonic contranyms are not spelled alike, but they are pronounced similarly. “My aural test is scheduled tomorrow, immediately before the oral defense of my dissertation.”

There are actually a couple of alternative names for contranyms. They can be called antagonyms or autoantonyms, which only serves to make the hazy water that much murkier.

Our next lesson will feature that amazing category of words that are “polysemy.” (Not really, I think this has been enough linguistic thinking to cover us for at least a week.)

Oh, one final note, for those who were curious about the choice of the image above for this column. Contranyms are also referred to as “Janus words,” in honor of the Roman deity who constantly gazes in two directions. Very fitting.