I was watching something this morning (it’s pretty funny actually, you can find it here) in which the speaker, a comedian by the name of John Branyan, said that Shakespeare had a working vocabulary of 53,000 words while the average American has a working vocabulary of 3,000.
And well, I just don’t think that’s fair.
Now I suppose that by working vocabulary he means words used, or possibly even words used regularly, but I would propose that we all have two vocabularies, words we use and words we understand.
The words we use vocabulary would be relatively small, I’m willing to believe that it falls in the 3,000 word range especially if you don’t consider technical jargon whatever flavor that might come in. I can talk all day about positioning in a lateral decubitous manner to allow access to the right superior anterior retro-peritoneal space in preparation to rescect the renal pelvis and spatualate the distended ureter in a ureteroplasty, but that doesn’t mean a lot to most of you. So sure, “working vocabulary” 3,000 words, why not?
Then there’s the words we understand. That number is a lot bigger. Once upon a time I was told that antidisestabilishmentarianism is the longest word in the English language (although firefox doesn’t recognize it so maybe it’s not even a word). This is a word I understand, it’s one that I recognize, that I know the definition for and that I could use in a sentence if I happened to be talking about the belief that the Church of England should be separated from the government of England. However, that’s not a conversation that I have very often. It’s a word I know but don’t use, so is that in my working vocabulary?
Here’s another example, maladroitly. I’ve been reading a lot of Brandon Sanderson lately, fantastic stuff, and Brandon Sanderson really likes the word maladroitly. I can’t blame him, it’s a great word. It’s a word I understand. And it’s significantly more likely that I am going to be discussing something that was done in a maladroit manner than that I’m going to be discussing the Church of England. However, I’m still not going to use the word maladroitly. Why not? Because I don’t want to sound like a pretentious prick. But I would be willing to bet that Brandon Sanderson wouldn’t either because for some of us there’s a third vocabulary.
For those of us who write (I haven’t really written anything in over a year but I’m still going to include myself in this category) there’s our written vocabulary. This vocabulary, while possibly not quite as large as the second, is a great deal larger than the first. This is where I just might use the word maladroitly. This is where I can use all those fun words like celerity and marshaling and haste and not really worry about being seen as a tool.
And this is all we know about Shakespeare. The only vocabulary of Shakespeare’s that we have is his written one, of course it’s larger than my “working vocabulary” he was writing! And not only was he writing he was writing in iambic pentameter which requires even more creativity. For all we know he wanted to use the word clumsily but he needed the extra syllable so he went with maladroitly instead. Comparing me to that? That’s just not fair.
Apropos of all that, the dictionary.com word of the day is: Slimsy, an adjective meaning flimsy or frail (and not a word I would use in conversation or writing (it looks too much like flimsy, as if I just got it wrong.))
So, what’s your favorite word?