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The palmary ne plus ultra vocabulary

Will 2day's kds no the 1ders of wrds?

The average young person texts 110 times per day. What are the chances that any of those billions of texts have ever included the word "congeries" to describe the heaps of clothes in their rooms? Do they know it's "hyperbole" when their friends purposely exaggerate? Have they delved into the deliciously inventive world of put-downs? Can they recognize a sycophant, panjandrum, quidnunc or popinjay?

The extraordinary breadth of the English language can festoon one's world in vibrant description and plumbed meaning. English is the most generous language on Earth with more than 600,000 entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. Compare that to the second-place German with 185,000 words or French at a measly 100,000.

If English is a lingua franca, it is also a welcome mat, easily absorbing tasty morsels from our Romantic cousins, with words such as "schadenfreude" from Germany, to describe the enjoyment of another's troubles, and "chiaroscuro" from Italy, to connote the treatment of light and dark parts of a painting, or a mood.

Unlike Sarah Palin who "like Shakespeare" makes up words, I collect them. I keep a compendium of words and phrases that I happened upon and had to look up. Did you know that a "hegira" is a flight from danger or an escape to a far better place; to "coruscate" is to gleam with intermittent flashes; and "apothegm" refers to a terse formulation of a precept? I didn't, until recently. My list is now 18 pages long.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said that "language is the skin of living thought." But I worry that in a Twitter world where language is pared down to prosaic declarations (having pizza for lunch), cutesy abbreviations (LOL) and onomatopoeia (ugh!), living thought may be dying.

A vocabulary that is deep as well as wide advances not just sophisticated communication but our ability to think. Words that package ideas such as "manichaeism," which describes a dualistic view of the world, divided starkly between good and evil powers, help us to understand varying human perspectives and motivations. Exposure to such words provides insights into ideas that can be embraced, or alternatively, critiqued and rejected.

Like a rich man who wastes food, Americans utilize only a tiny proportion of the words at their disposal. Estimates are that high school graduates can recognize about 12,000 words, with a working vocabulary that is far smaller. More literate Americans will have something like a 60,000-word reading vocabulary.

While an expansive vocabulary can open doors, a limited one can provoke scorn and derision. A famous political tale says that George Smathers, the late U.S. senator from Florida, gave a speech to North Florida Crackers using five-dollar words to trick them into thinking scandalously of incumbent Claude Pepper, his rival in the 1950 Democratic Senate primary.

As the story goes, Smathers exhorted the crowd: "Are you aware that Claude Pepper is known all over Washington as a shameless extrovert? Not only that, but this man is reliably reported to practice nepotism with his sister-in-law, and he has a sister who was once a thespian in wicked New York." Pepper was also accused of having "habitually practiced celibacy" before marriage.

The speech is pure lore, a "yarn" as Time magazine put it, but it holds resonance because of the plausibility that a yahoo electorate could be bamboozled by big words spoken in castigating tones. Then as now this is not a frivolous concern. The latest high school reading scores on the SAT are the lowest on record, a decline in language acuity that has been growing since the 1970s.

I remember working to memorize lists of words in my long-ago preparation for the SAT test. During those weeks of study, I built a vocabulary to score well enough to get into a good college, which afforded me a reasonable chance at an interesting life.

Such is the power of words.

The palmary ne plus ultra vocabulary 10/22/11 [Last modified: Saturday, October 22, 2011 5:30am]
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