Thursday, January 29, 2009

Vanity and Vocabulary

How's your vocabulary? Is it small, average, large -maybe even pretentious? I'm not really sure if that last word there would be correct to use in context of describing one with a very large vocabulary and who frequently uses said group of words, often quite merrily. But whether it's correct or not, I'm putting it in there.

To get through my post -my little "Story" as it were -today, I'll take you back in time -a long, long time to when I first began to read, to develop what would become my life-long love affair with books, with reading.

My Grandfather started this for me by reading to me from the vast collection I had as a pre-schooler of the "Little Golden Books." I owe him big time for doing that for me too. I thoroughly enjoyed when he read to me from the very beginning when I was barely big enough to sit on his lap and maybe pay a tiny bit of attention to the process. Not that I remember that far back but that is what my Mom always told me anyway.

By the time I was around four years old, if he read any of those books to me and changed one word, re-arranged any words at all -I corrected him. Told him "No, no, Grandpa. That isn't what it says there."

So when I started first grade, I was well on my way to becoming an avid reader. By second grade, I took the Reader's Digest to school with me and to that teacher's amazement, read from it to my classmates. I don't remember that either but she told me in later years that I did and that I was the only student she ever had that read the Reader's Digest at that early an age.

By fourth grade, I was reading book well beyond my ability to understand fully. Big , fat books -like "Not As A Stranger" for one. I later re-read that book when I was around 13 and again, when I was about 16 or 17 and it was amazing how much more of the book I understood then, although at the age of 9, I had understood a great deal of it.

The older I got, the more voracious my reading became. I attribute this to the fact that as an only child it became my escape into seeing how other people, those with actual famlies, lived. It was a way that I could see the world from the arm chair in our living room while munching on whatever snacks were available in the house.

Along the way, from doing all this reading, guess what else happened?

I developed a vocabulary -one which, by the time I hit high school, was fairly extensive -due mainly to the wide variety of books I read.

In high school -our English teacher for 9th and 10th grade had a test he loved -absolutely loved -to give all his students. Back then, our school was small so the man who was the baseball and football coach was also the only teacher of English to anyone attending our school. He also taught Senior English too though.

But the test he insisted all his 9th and 10th grade students was a standardized test, put out by the Reader's Digest -which magazine was also a required reading item by all students in those grades too.

There was another student back then too -a girl, a year older, a year ahead of me -who, like me was also a total bookworm. She was also an only child as well -many ways our lives paralleled -and when it was time for this Vocabulary Test to be taken, it became kind of a competition between me and her as to who would score the highest on that test.

It wasn't something we set out to do, to see who could out-perform the other, as initially I really wasn't aware of how high her scores were until the teacher, the coach, made a comment about it one day.

It seems one year I scored either the same or higher than she did or had the previous year. Time takes a bit of toll here on my memory as I don't recall the specifics exactly now, just that our English teacher was really surprised to find another student in the school with a vocabulary at least as high as "DJ" scored. I will not post her full name here -just her initials -on the remote possibility (very remote really) that someone who knew both of us back then might read this and might still be friends or possibly even in contact with her and might even write and tell her about this post, this blog. Normally I wouldn't have any issues with that aspect but you see, this particular girl has not spoken to me in over 42 years now and I'm at a loss too as to what I did that ticked her off so much that she would take that type of stance.)

So anyway, that was me, my vocabulary and yes, a bit of vanity I had back then too about it.

Fast forward now to the present.

I've mentioned in the past how 3-4 girls I graduated from high school with and I meet on the last Thursday of every month to have a nice, friendly little lunch. We catch up a little on what's happening in the area, about each others famlilies and oh, all kinds of things.

A couple of months back, I had to phone one of these friends -Rose, the girl who grew up in the house right beside mine. Her husband happened to answer the phone that day and I asked to speak to Rose. I think he asked who was calling because I quipped to him that apparently he didn't recognize my sweet melodic telephone voice. (I do tend to speak a bit softer on the phone, at least at the start of a conversation and then, typically the volume as well as the kind of gruff or raspiness of my voice kicks in.) He laughed -and this guy, also from my high school class, has a laugh that is quite unmistakable, always able to tell when he is in the midst of a gathering if he laughs.

And he said to me, "Now I know who it is! I could tell because you're the only person I know who uses all the big words."

And yes, at times I do that. A good friend of mine called me one time, telling me her daughter wanted me to give her some good, big words to use in something she was writing but also, she remarked that she didn't consider some of the words I tended to use then -"dickhead, peckerhead, peckerweed" -as words that qualified though. Yeah, I have another reputation with respect to other words too.

But what brought all this to mind today was a post that one of the moderators on a writing group I belong to had done. In it, she had given a link to an article in the LA Times about vocabulary, about words, and the beauty of them.

After reading that article and viewing the words that were selected there as the 100 most beautiful words, I've come to the conclusion that my vocabulary is really dropping -rapidly! There were only maybe ten words on the list there that I had ever seen before and umpteen words that I had no clue whatsoever as to how to begin to pronounce them much less use them.

I told my friend Rose about this list and that -just for the hell of it -I was going to send this article to her for her and her husband, Durv, to read. And also, to tell Durv that he need never worry about hearing me use the words on this particular list since I had narry a clue as to what most of them meant.

Now, just for the fun of it - here's the article from the LA Times. Read it, read the words listed there and see how many of them You recognize, understand and would know how to use them correctly in a sentence.

I'm going to dig out all the old Reader's Digests I can find now and start taking those little "Word Power" vocabulary tests too. Can't have my past reputation going down the tubes now, can I?

4 comments: said...

I love learning new words -- I even get them sent to me daily in emails!!!

My husband says my vocabulary is bursting at the seams.

I completely disagree. But I am getting much better at crossword puzzles these days. That must count for something. :)


Kanani said...

I have a good working vocabulary, though every so often I do look up words to double check that I'm using them correctly.

For instance, today I doubled checked profligacy.

My Dad had a box of cards on a table when I was growing up. They were for businessmen, and it was to help them build a bigger vocabulary. I remember going through them when I was little. Later, in high school, I had a wonderful vocabulary teacher and all we did was learn new words. He let me keep the text book at the end of the class because he knew I loved it so much.

One thing for sure, having a large vocabulary has really helped me as a writer!

Tee aka The Diva's Thoughts said...

I try to use words that indicate intelligence but make sure they are not too big or complicated because people tend to think you are trying to be pretentious so I keep it to a limit but I also need to expand my vocabluary because it's not as extensive as I'd like it to be.

Travis said...

I think I have an above average vocabulary. Throughout my education, I've been fortunate to have teachers who not only stressed building a strong vocabulary. They also taught how to use a vocabulary well.

I guess what they did was teach me how not to be pretentious. It's good to know all kinds of words, and to be well spoken. But it isn't always necessary to use "big" words when ordinary words will do.