|Image courtesy of Surachai at FreeDigitalPhotos.net|
There are all kinds of things you might not expect to have names. A piece of paper that’s had the writing on it removed, and then written on again? Palimpsest. The sensation of bugs crawling all over your skin? Formication. Someone who tends to use really long words? Sesquipedalian. The ringing sound of bells? Tintinnabulation.
Not only that, the English language is chock-full of synonyms—words that have similar meanings. There’s ignition, conflagration, and combustion—three different ways of describing fire. Yet all of these each have their own subtle definition, slightly different from each other. In addition, all words have two types of meaning—denotation, the literal meaning of the word, and connotation, the implied meanings associated with the word.
It’s virtually limitless. Consider the sheer vastness of our language. According to the Oxford Dictionaries’ website,
The Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words. To this may be added around 9,500 derivative words included as subentries.
This suggests that there are, at the very least, a quarter of a million distinct English words, excluding inflections, and words from technical and regional vocabulary not covered by the OED, or words not yet added to the published dictionary, of which perhaps 20 per cent are no longer in current use. If distinct senses were counted, the total would probably approach three quarters of a million.
An estimation—estimation, mind you—of how many words there are in our language is approximately three quarters of a million. 750,000. Do you realize what this means? The English language is a playground for writers. It’s not even just a playground, it’s an amusement park to put Disney, Universal, and Six Flags to shame. So, when you work on expanding your vocabulary—what I like to call being vocabulous, you are buying yourself tickets to that amusement park, one little ride at a time. Obviously, not even the most talented lexicographer—a person who puts dictionaries together—could ever possibly dream to have command over 750,000 words. At best, the average person probably only knows a tenth of those words.
Even that probably seems like a lot to you, but it all depends on what your definition of what constitutes a ‘word.’ Are walk, walks, and walked all different words, or just different versions of the same one? If it seems like I’m just throwing out numbers here, it’s because I am. Nobody really knows the average vocabulary count of anyone.
The point is that we all have the capacity to know—and use—thousands upon thousands of words. But, if you’ll permit me a gratuitous Spider-Man moment, I’ll say “With great power, comes great responsibility.” (Yes, I know people used that before the movie came out, but it seems like everyone associates that scene where Peter Parker is talking with his Uncle Ben.)
Sophisticated vocabulary is a wonderful thing to have in writing, but it’s all about how you use it. For example, little five-year-old Billy would probably not ever say, “Mom, listen to that tintinnabulation!” No, he would most assuredly say, “Mom, listen to those bells ringing!”
When she was in her early teens—probably more preteen than anything else--my younger sister loved to write stories. She was writing one called “The Race to Save Mankind.” She too discovered the joy of words, and then got a hold of a thesaurus. The title was promptly changed to “The Race to Forefend Mankind.” This was an acceptable substitution, though the connotation of it was slightly off. But then, she started using ridiculously sophisticated words in all the wrong places. I can’t remember what they were, but we struggled not to giggle at her use of them. Of course we wanted her to expand her vocabulary and become a better writer, so we let her be. Trial and error is what learning to write is all about.
However, using a large vocabulary and flaunting it all over the place is not what being vocabulous is all about. Being vocabulous is about knowing the words, and most importantly, when to use them. Here’s a scenario in which using ‘big’ vocabulary words is appropriate:
As they stood on the promontory, Maria clasped little Billy tightly. All was as still as death. The air was cold; it was as cold as the phantom tintinnabulation that reverberated out of the valley below them. Maria felt certain that her tenuous grip on her sanity was slipping away.
Billy squirmed in her arms. “Mommy,” he whispered, his voice tremulous. “I hear bells.”In this case, ‘tintinnabulation’ fits in because it is not being said by someone who would probably not even know it. Also, look at the other words I use. ‘Tintinnabulation’ seems at home amongst such sophisticated words as ‘promontory,’ ‘reverberated,’ ‘tenuous,’ and ‘tremulous.’ However, consider it written this way:
As they stood on the high hill, Maria held little Billy tightly. All was as still as death. The air was cold; it was as cold as the phantom tintinnabulation that echoed out of the valley below them. Maria felt certain that her weak grip on her sanity was slipping away.
Billy squirmed in her arms. “Mommy,” he whispered, his voice shaky. “I hear bells.”Now, ‘tintinnabulation’ sticks out against the background. It’s too much. It seems silly surrounded by so many commonplace words—sort of like the lady who wears a formal gown to a barbecue. However, the first version borders on being a barbecue whose host insists that everyone wear formal gowns. There’s almost too much sophistication for the occasion. The trick is to strike the right balance.
As you can see, being vocabulous is a big responsibility. But it’s a responsibility that will give you the power to say exactly what you want, in a more powerful, meaningful way. You’ll be able to use one beautiful, powerful word instead of using a bunch of smaller ones to say the same thing.
If that’s not a playground for people who like to write, I don’t know what is.
What are your thoughts on using 'big' words? Is vocabulary building something you enjoy? Share your thoughts in the comments.
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