What Does it all Mean?

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?

5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Cheryl
    Jan 23, 2012 @ 10:26:32

    I’m just happy you blogged!

    I love that video because it’s hilarious.

    My favorite word? No idea. But I like your take on the three sets of vocab. I believe this is me agreeing with you.

  2. Jillybean
    Jan 23, 2012 @ 11:17:45

    I think Shakespeare just made up a bunch of words to make his friends feel stupid.

  3. madhousewife
    Jan 23, 2012 @ 22:56:44

    I’m not sure what my favorite word is. It changes. When I was first dating my husband, I apparently used the word “garish” a lot. He had a shirt made for me that was just the word “garish” with the dictionary definition. Very cute. Also ironic, since the shirt itself was not garish at all. I may have brought back “garish” with just this comment.

  4. LisAway
    Jan 24, 2012 @ 01:51:21

    Exactly. I have often felt this way about writing. Many people who know me in real life have told me that they can hear me so well in my writing (well, it’s not really writing, but the way I put things down in words). But I’ve read blog posts out loud to my kids on occasion (usually if they play a starring role) and feel a little silly about it all. But none of this has much to do with vocabulary, more just about wording. My lack of vocabulary and ability to describe objects and situations is one of a few reasons I probably will never attempt anything more than blog posts. I just feel so impotent.

    But anyway, I agree with your post. Except for the biological stuff. Because I won’t agree with something I don’t understand, just in case you got it wrong. :P

  5. Chris Jones
    Jan 26, 2012 @ 12:23:01

    My favorite word is girl. I love the word. I love the people it describes.

    Antidisestablishmentarianism is not the longest word in English. That would be Floccinaucinihilipilification, which is the longest unchallenged nontechnical word in English. There are longer ones, including my personal favorite, Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, which is just so terribly much fun to SAY.

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