How Many Words Do YOU Know? Sort Of.
I don’t need anyone to remind me of how little I know, least of all myself, yet that’s what I’ve been doing on a daily basis lately. In an effort to reinvigorate my quest for knowledge that took a major detour about thirteen years ago (two daughters), I’ve reintroduced an old custom of mine of writing down words unknown to me while reading novels.
Although I consider myself a relatively intelligent person, I fully admit that vocabulary has never been my strong suit. Sure, I can string a bunch of words together to get my point across, but ask me to use a more obscure word in a sentence, and I start to panic. I guess I take some solace in that the average educated English-speaking person knows an average of 17,200 base words, a mere percentage of the total number of entries in the Oxford American Dictionary (over 180,000) and the Unabridged Oxford English Dictionary (over 600,000). (Base words are “word families.” So the base word “love” might extend to words like lovely, lovable, lover, etc.)
There are words I clearly know, like the ones I’ve written thus far in this essay. There are words I clearly do not know, like rehoboam. This I can accept. What kills me are the words I kinda sorta know but would be hard-pressed to define or use in conversation. My kids have exposed this gaping hole in my chest of knowledge numerous times when asking me the meaning of a word that I thought I knew, but couldn’t for the life of me explain. (“Well, capricious means…um…like unusual, right? Um…why don’t you look it up?”) And even when I sort of know a word, like bereft (meaning: void of), I would never use it in conversation for fear of making a fool of myself in case I used it incorrectly. Just last weekend I used the word “indoctrinate” when I actually meant to say “inoculate,” which is sad an embarrassing, but I DO happen to know the word that describes the misuse of another word – malapropism. I should have that word tattooed on my forehead.
Despite the odds, I’m determined to go to my grave with a better command of the English language than I have now, so I’ve created a list of words I’ve come across recently. The latest book I read was Nick Hornby’s Juliet, Naked, a fine read and certainly not high-brow. In fact, it’s really quite accessible, but that didn’t stop me from not knowing the meaning of the following words (how many of these could you use in conversation?):
Bathetic. Opacity. Perspicacity. Torpid. Detritus. Phlegmatic. Circumlocutory. Feckless. Pastiche. Demur.
And this is from a #1 New York Times bestseller! Give me a copy of Ulysses and I’d be toast. What’s worse is that even after looking up all these words and writing down their meanings, I still don’t remember them well enough to use them, so all my efforts have basically resulted in increasing the number of words I’ve heard before, but couldn’t use in a sentence to save my life.
Luckily over the years, a few words have managed to squeeze into my lexicon (so if I’m average, I now know 17,202 words). I can now successfully use the word loquacious (talkative) in a sentence, and I’ve recently added misanthrope (someone who hates people). I’m still waiting to come across the word that means, “Ineptitude in expanding one’s vocabulary.”