Our vocabulary is an indication of our education, our credibility, and more than we realize, our nature and personality. So we should choose our words carefully with specific intent.
In my field, we speak of linguistic accommodation: adjusting vocabulary, sentence structure, speech, vocal patterns, and gestures to accommodate the expectations of others. In truth, in the academy, we often take the practice to rather absurd extremes, peppering our conversations with the latest jargon to make it perfectly clear that, yes, I have read Professor Fuzzyworth's latest work on the bandersnatchian dynamics inherent in the evolving, but still underrepresented, jabberwocky.
The point is this: words are tools and the more tools we have in our toolbox the better we can express our initially inarticulate feelings to a variety of audiences. There are certainly enough tools out there. The Oxford English Dictionary flirts with 180,000 entries while the Global Language Monitor asserts that English acquired its millionth word in 2009. Though these are wildly varying numbers, I am more interested in how we acquire and use whatever words we do have.
For example, let us consider poetry. And here I must admit a bias; I am well aware that poetry can easily be a language of rage, a voice of the powerless against the powerful, and, often, it should be. Consider Bob Dylan, a wandering renegade whose calls to conscience bounced back decades later bearing a Nobel Prize for Literature. Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, and the Gutheries, Woody and Arlo – rough-edged poets to stir the blood and raise the banners of resistance.
Fortunately, the more gentle portions of my vocabulary hail from previous centuries. It is mostly my mother's fault. You see, in the basement of the modest home in which I was raised, stood a large green bookcase filled to overflowing with books. Books of all shapes and sizes, books that were already "golden oldies" in her childhood. Novels from the late 1800s, the early 1900's. Books written when grammar still held sway and when the rough edges of life were written gently. James Oliver Curwood, Gene Stratton-Porter, Harold Bell Wright, maybe a touch of Zane Gray. They were in many ways the pulp fiction of their era. The plots utterly predictable, the stereotypes would curl your hair. But these were my earliest composition tutors; purists when it came to the rules brought to parsing prose. Remember diagramming sentences?
And the words! Oh my, what a surfeit of words! Consider this conclusion to Curwood’s The River’s End (1919): "He looked away into the shimmering distance of the night, and for a long time both were silent. A woman had found happiness. A man’s soul had come out of darkness into light.”
It scores off the chart on the sappy scale, but for me, a youngster who would polish off a couple of the far more prosaic Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew mysteries before lunch, it was mysterious. Multisyllabic, with the sentence construction just a shade askew.
And speaking of words, there might be a few too many in this post already so let me close with an analogy:
When I was a kid in maybe 3rd or 4th grade, part of the autumn ritual was buying school supplies. My buddy Dan and I would hop on our bikes and pedal down the alley to Patton’s. It was in many ways a remnant of the old general store era, as was Mr. Patton himself. He was, in our callow eyes, ancient – so, what, maybe 40? Slight of stature, with hooded eyes that would follow you suspiciously around the store.
Somehow, no doubt as a result of a list distributed by the school board, Patton’s carried “pre-packaged school supplies.” What this meant was that there were paper bags labeled for each grade level into which Mr. Patton, or one of his minions, had sorted the various tools we would need to confront the challenges of the coming year. Tablets, rulers, pencils, and a tin of Prang watercolors. If you couldn’t make the right color with that limited palette and our even more limited abilities, well, it just wasn’t going to happen. After art we would move on English and the dreaded spelling and vocabulary test. The comparison to our Prang watercolors is direct and accurate. Here in English we began to construct the linguistic palette with which we were to describe the physical world unfolding around us and the emotional world bubbling within us. And, for the most part, we got the linguistic equivalent of those eight basic colors.
Jumping ahead 50 or 60 years, Prang still sells an eight-color watercolor set, but as we edit our contribution to the roughly 1 billion digital photos uploaded to the internet daily, or create original works in any digital paint program, the idea of having anything less than "millions of colors" is absurd. However if, upon completing an image, we want to move beyond simply sharing it, and tell our friends what we were thinking or feeling when we composed the image, we access our Twitter account or some other text app usually limited to 146 characters.
Consider for a moment the radical difference between the chromatic palette provided for the most basic visual computer program and the extreme restrictions placed on the texting applications. With linguistic options so crippled, is it any wonder that “texters” have reverted to extreme contractions or modern pictograms (emojis)? Those unique constructions speak well of texting creativity within severely limited communication spaces. Yet, those same linguistic accommodations give me pause concerning the future of the more arcane genres of poetry and prose.
There really is only one way to build a rich, functional, linguistic palette. You must read. Novels, biographies, non-fiction works, histories – all of it. I get a number of word-of-the-day emails, and I enjoy crossword puzzles. But neither of these linguistic “vitamin pills” empower our own expressive skills. Similarly, films and videos slide swiftly across our consciousness, requiring multiple viewing or a visit to websites of quotes to add that awesome bit of repartee to our personal, functional stash of words.
So we must read, and be especially thankful for the authors who make that an enriching and enjoyable experience, for ourselves and today's "teched-out" children. I suppose one should be Catholic to nominate someone for sainthood, but, if permitted, I would like to nominate J.K. Rowling for that, and any other relevant honors.
Writing well, conversing widely, articulating those thoughts that define us requires words – lots and lots of words. We need to practice slapping them up against each other in unique sentences to explore which have natural affinity and which are fingernails on a literary blackboard.