A Box of Soap
By DON VOWELL
Believe me, vocabulary in America is a total disaster. Many, many of us don’t know how really, really bad this is. We’ve got to get very, very tough in order to stop this American carnage.
We are grateful that we were able to raise our children in Keizer, home of average schools for our blessedly average children. From this decent and humble platform they have taken off to accomplish things that leave us slack-jawed in amazement. The credit is theirs, same as it would be if they were both imprisoned for stealing hubcaps. If I were to immodestly take credit for any small advantage we provided to our children it would be our interest in words. Every time an unfamiliar word came up at the table, or in their homework, or in the newspaper, or anywhere else, we immediately looked it up to learn exact meaning and pronunciation. We thought it was important. We still do.
“The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for.” Thus sayeth Ludwig Wittgenstein, renowned philosopher interested in mathematics, the mind, and linguistics. That is a frightening concept when applied to a whole generation being raised on Tweets and Facebook memes.
In what seem like imprecise estimates, I was able to find studies that show average American adults to have a vocabulary of 20–35,000 words. A college educated speaker may have 80,000 words to choose from. The same studies held that vocabulary growth stops at middle age. Middle age was also left undefined, though I am certain it’s not in my own future.
A word I have always loved is curmudgeon. After reading some of the pieces I had submitted in this space many years ago my mom thought I sounded curmudgeonly. I plead guilty. But that doesn’t mean I believe knowing more words makes you smarter or better. Words are the tools of communication. Communication is what can make you smarter or better. Understanding of everything you hear or read is dictated by your vocabulary. If there is a complete set of tools in your vocabulary toolbox you can analyze the work of all the brightest authors and speakers.
It has been a little off-putting to read the news lately. Even stories from national wire sources have what seem to be clumsy and poorly chosen words and phrases. That is probably the result of the modern necessity for reporting news thirty seconds after it takes place. It may also be the result of media understanding the modern American attention span. Media sources can hear the clickers clicking when they dare to cover a story for more than ninety seconds.
“Sound is the vocabulary of nature”
– Pierre Schaeffer.
Because I don’t understand anything happening in national affairs anymore I have been spending a lot of time slowly wandering around wildlife refuges. It is a comfort. Birds and critters communication always seems constructive. Not much of the petty, shrill, and hurtful. It is in some way restorative and peaceful.
The studies about vocabulary also discovered that the best method of increasing your vocabulary is to read fiction. Authors of novels and stories are freed of time constraints and able to lovingly and painstakingly seek out the word they really want. That is good for all of us in the age of “fake news.” Everything is fiction. I would also add that some of you with truly expansive vocabularies might email some of your extra, little-used words to the White House. We would all win and winning is very, very tremendous.
(Don Vowell gets on his soapbox regularly in the Keizertimes.)