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by Scott Deitle

It Pays to Enrich Your Word Power

The train was quiet this morning, as it was a holiday, and most of the passengers stared at their smartphones and Kindles in silence.  People were listening to unknown music or podcasts, as the sun rose above the cold morning landscape, with dirty spots of snow in the shadowed corners of streets, buildings, and trees.  On the other hand, I stared out of the window to the west.  The mountains glowed in an orange-purple light, albeit briefly, until a thin menacing cloud covered the rising sun and sent the front range into a monochromatic pale-grey hue.

The train stopped at the Englewood station, the usual stop where the train goes from quiet and peaceful to busy and crowded.  Since it was a holiday, only a few people boarded, but in the seats across the aisle from me, two women, of a younger age and dressed business casual, sat down and continued their conversation from the platform whence they came.  Since I had no earphones in, and very little to occupy my consciousness, I listened to their fervor dialog, and found the inspiration for my blog post.

Woman #1:  “Ohmygawd,like,ItotallywatchedtheBroncosgamelastnight,riiiight?  Canyoubelieeeevethat? CuzIwaslike,youknow,what-EVER,like,wealmostLOSTthatgame,soclose,soclose,right?Like,soclose.”

Woman #2:  “Yeah,thenIcalledJessicaandBailey,right,like,theyhadnoidea,right?  Ohmygawd,Bailey,likeshewasnt-even-watchingit.  What-EVERgirl!  What-eveeeer!”

Communication is critical; essential to our development as a species.  It’s one of the fundamental differences between homo sapiens and all other animals.  Even the African bonobo chimpanzee, who can use over 400 unique words and a plethora of body language gestures, cannot come close to the human ability to generate extensive dialog and narrative.   It’s what makes poetry, plays, essays, narratives, soliloquies, monologues, dialogs, and numerous other forms of speech possible.  Vocabulary is to communication what spices are to cooking; they add flavor and uniqueness to an otherwise simple task.

Enriched vocabulary use was, at one time, fashionable and cool, much like skinny jeans and fixie bikes are today.  As an example, I present the following love letter, from The Guide to Good Manners (1847) from a man who was intent on revealing his strong feelings to his crush.  Love letters tended to be quite the undertaking back then.

“Madam, those only who have suffered them can tell the unhappy moments of hesitating uncertainty which attend the formation of a resolution to declare the sentiments of affection; I, who have felt their greatest and most acute torments, could not, previous to my experience, have formed the remotest idea of their severity. Every one of those qualities in you which claim my admiration, increased my diffidence, by showing the great risk I run in venturing, perhaps before my affectionate assiduities have made the desired impression on your mind, to make a declaration of the ardent passion I have long since felt for you.”

Casual communication, of course, is quite different.  With the rush and excitement of expressing one’s thoughts to another person, it’s quite understandable that our words become less carefully crafted, using placeholders and slang in place of proper verbs and nouns.  We “dumb down” our casual speech when around those we are comfortable with.  So I couldn’t fault the ladies on the train.

What is more alarming, however, is society’s growing trend at utilizing the fewest and most basic words possible, to the point of dismissing vocabulary altogether.  A facilitator of this, I believe, would be the smartphone itself, as texting has replaced calling, while emojis have replaced vocabulary.  Composing a thoughtful and well-crafted message takes time, after all, which most of us feel we just don’t have when in a digital discussion on an iPhone.  But lack of time is not a 21st century problem…consider Blaise Pascal’s first mention of it in a personal letter in 1657:

“I have made this [letter] longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.”

Spelling has always been a sticking point of mine.  I’m cursed with the inane ability to almost instantly spot misspellings in a paragraph.  Sometimes I lose the overall message of the paragraph because I’m so focused the slew of misspellings.  The verbal equivalent of misspellings is the “filler” word: the “kindas”, the “likes”, and the “youknows”.  Old habits are hard to break, and with text messaging freeing people from the responsibility of composing innovative messages, the apathy of the texting shorthand has become the norm.  So much, in fact, that well-formed vocabulary has started to become laughable in this media; imagine texting the previous love letter on your iPhone.  Vocabulary reduction is now prevailing elsewhere.

I was recently rebuked for using the word “recalcitrant” in an office publication.  I was told that vocabulary like this sounds pretentious, because the target audience might not understand it.  (Think of Kevin Hart’s line in The 40-Year Old Virgin, “First of all, you’re throwing too many big words at me. Okay, now because I don’t understand them, I’m gonna take them as disrespect.”)  The moral that I took from my censure was that we need to “dumb down” our correspondence to appeal to the “least common denominator” of reader.  Such elaborate words, I concluded, do not belong in our communications.

Now I see the word “recalcitrant” everywhere.

As the train started out from the 16th Street Mall station, and the two ladies continued their incessant conversation outside, the train was much quieter.  Only a few passengers remained, and I gathered my belongings, prepared to exit at the next platform.  I realized that it is up to us, the ones who hold the English lexicon in high regard, to ensure that we communicate effectively and with as diverse and enriched vocabulary as possible.  So this is my call to arms: let’s bring back the trend of eloquent communication, word power, and thought-provoking dialog to our love letters, our phone messages, our professional communications, and our personal relationships.  Let’s buck the trend of linguistic apathy and follow the advice of John McWhorter, a Columbia professor of linguistics:

“Loving your language means a command of its vocabulary beyond the level of the everyday.”

Spice up your vocabulary.  Every.  Single.  Day.