An Ever Expanding Selection of Vocabulary

By February 24, 2015Writing about Writing

According to the linguists Steven Weisler and Slavoljub P. Milekic, in their book Theory of Language, they estimate that “an average-educated English-speaking adult knows more than 50,000 words.” Most people do not think about their vocabularies, since much of  our daily communications is dominated by a subset of frequently used words.

Language constantly develops and evolves.  The Oxford-English Dictionary 2014 word of the year was vape. The year before? Selfie. Writers and speakers of English coin new words and let old ones disappear into the ether of language (Everyone who swims in the Great Lakes ought to know the dying word  curglaff). For the Texan company Global Language Monitor, a new word can be added to their database if it reaches 25,000 citations in media, social networking and otherwise.

Some vocabulary is ultraconserved,  existing unchanged for over 15,000 years! For example, if you had a time machine (If you do, please let me know, I have my time travel kit ready to go) and traveled to  when “proto-Eurasiatic” was still spoken, you could say the following sentence:

“I hear a man spitting on worms. Give him bark, mother!”

These speakers will then be confused and afraid of your blue jeans, the glasses in front of your eyes, and the glowing rectangle you are holding. Why the heck did you bring your cellphone? Before the Common Era coverage is super spotty.

Enough silly shenanigans, you came here to learn how to expand your vocabulary.  If you are learning English as a second language, don’t be daunted by the vastness of the English language. Finding the appropriate word for a situation is a challenge, even for native speakers.  One could read  a dictionary or thesaurus cover-to-cover, but only logophiles enjoy such exercises.

Instead, read a variety of texts: fiction, news, poetry, essays, or even scientific journals.  Different authors in differing styles can provide new and exciting words.  You can also watch documentaries, listen to podcasts (like UCWbL’s Scrawl), or verbose music. One band that possesses great talent in teaching me new words is the punk band Bad Religion (the lead singer Greg Gaffin is a professor of zoology). Once you investigate the meaning of an unfamiliar word, add it to your lexicon by utilizing it. Of course, superfluous and shoehorned vocabulary isn’t impressive, but the usage of a Goldilocks-esque word? Well, that feels amazing!

What are your favorite words that you recently discovered?  Here are some of my mine:


Join the discussion One Comment

  • Maggie C. says:

    Hey Donovan!

    I thought this blog post provided a lot of good tips, and it was playful–I appreciated your extreme usage of “big” words despite not knowing some of them. I think improving one’s vocabulary is something everyone worries about because they have to “sound smart” when it isn’t that big of a deal; as your article proves, it should be fun!

    Also, some favorite words of mine are from when I studied for the GRE: ruminate, exacerbate, cacophony, transient, and ephemeral.