The Joy of Vocabulary Acquisition

By Mark Nichol

As a word nerd, I find it pleasurable to discover words I had not heretofore known about. Being introduced to utilitarian technical and scientific terminology generally doesn’t do much for me, but almost invariably, stumbling on a word that is new to me brings a smile to my face.

The most recent joyful addition to my word-hoard is anagnorisis, adopted into English from Greek by way of Latin. The word means “recognition,” but with the sense of one’s dramatic discovery of one’s own character, identity, or nature, or that of someone else. Its use in literary criticism dates back to Aristotle, and the concept of anagnorisis is often associated with catharsis, the purging or purifying of one’s emotions or one’s renewal or restoration resulting in an abrupt change in emotion—catharsis is a favorite word of mine, too—as well as with peripeteia (another new word for me) which means “turning point.”

How many words do I know now, after adding anagnorisis and peripeteia to my trove? I have no idea, but I can estimate.

The active vocabulary of the average adult native speaker of English—that is, the number of words a person actually uses—is said to be about 20,000. (The average passive vocabulary—the number of words a person recognizes and knows the meaning of but does not use—is about twice that.) However, according to one source, a mere 25 words constitute about a third of our everyday writing, 100 words account for half of it, and 1,000 words constitutes nearly 90 percent of our writing vocabulary; our normal reading diet of journalistic and conversational written content may consist of as few as 3,000 words.

Considering that I’m an editor and writer who enjoys studying etymology and reading the dictionary, I probably know several times that many words, but my total is likely still in the five-figure range. But why would anyone want to know that many words?

I’ve never set out to learn about more words for the sake of achieving a vocabulary word count, but I appreciate being able to summon a specific term when a generic one just won’t do. But why would I ever use anagnorisis? In the context of discussing a literary work—whether one of the Great Classics or a comic book—I wouldn’t be satisfied with recognition, because it doesn’t quite capture the potency of self-discovery or of a cathartic peripetic moment in which one realizes that, for example, a supposed hero is a villain or (more intriguingly) vice-versa.

English is replete with words we don’t use every day but we can summon to express a nuanced thought or to communicate an idea that otherwise must be explained in a phrase or with an entire sentence. (That is the great value of German words such as zeitgeist and weltanshauung.) Having such terms at hand is of great benefit when one attempts to write coherently and concisely.

But, you might argue, most people don’t know what anagnorisis means, so hasn’t one failed to communicate when one uses such highfalutin vocabulary? My response: I’d most likely gloss, or briefly define, the word the first time I used it, and once I did, my readers would have an addition to their own word-hoard. In the same way, I benefit from reading content that may feature challenging wordcraft.

There’s no shame in using basic vocabulary; many of the morphemic building blocks of this post and my others consist of one-syllable words any child knows, and it’s an interesting exercise to try to write a piece of content using only one-syllable words (though, if you want to emerge emotionally unscathed, start out with a two-syllable limit and work your way down). But finding just the right word for the job is a worthy goal for writers. (There has to be a word for that.)

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5 Responses to “The Joy of Vocabulary Acquisition”

  • Bill

    I’ve always thought that having a large vocabulary is desirable. Some infrequently used words make writing concise, others can give it tone and shades of meaning that it would otherwise lack. But. If you read Emma Cline’s The Girls, a first novel just out, you’ll find on every page at least one example of a writer using everyday words in such fresh, original ways that you realize that great writing comes more from art than craft.

  • Dale A. Wood

    ” Being introduced to utilitarian technical and scientific terminology generally doesn’t do much for me”
    Well, you live in a country of high technology and its many uses, so you ought to embrace the language of such things to be in touch with the real world.
    Also, so many of these technological words have wonderful Greek and Latin roots, combined in so many interesting way.
    For example, take “supersonic aerodynamics”, “telecommunications”, and “magnetohydrodynamics”.
    I’ve also been amused by scholars who object to words with Greek main roots, but Latin prefixes or suffixes, and vice-versa. They don’t like combining parts from one ancient language with parts from another.

  • venqax

    I very much agree and also “…appreciate being able to summon a specific term when a generic one just won’t do.” I also applaud the notion that, “words we don’t use every day but we can summon to express a nuanced thought or to communicate an idea that otherwise must be explained in a phrase or with an entire sentence.” These are why it is so, so important to maintain the distinct definitions of words and resist accepting the erosion of their meanings through laziness and mistaken notions of being “modern”. Enormity doesn’t mean big; there is a difference between blackmail and extortion; herpetology is not just the study of snakes (ophiology is); blacksmiths aren’t farriers; dolphins are porpoises; a turtle is not a tortoise; butchers aren’t meat cutters; you can’t itch your back; and you never, ever control your destiny.

  • venqax

    Dolphins aren’t porpoises. Really.

  • Thebluebird11

    @venqax: agreed!

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