Warning: the following is about to get super nerdy.
A woman I used to know from childhood recently showed me up on a vocabulary quiz making its rounds on that time-wasting, insecurity-inducing, why-do-I-care-so-much super highway we refer to as social media.
When the quiz came to my attention, I quickly jumped aboard and finished it without too much sweat on my brow, I proudly noted—only to be taken down a few notches when my “grade” came back. Turns out I seem to have the same breadth and depth of vocabulary as a “30-year-old professional,” I believe is how they worded it. Considering the fact that I have a good ten years on any 30-year-old and have been making my living for some time now as a writer, I was—to say the least—not satisfied at all with this (highly scientific, I’m sure) assessment.
On the other hand, the woman who sent me the quiz—I’ll call her Wanda the Word Nerd—was labeled as a genius akin to Shakespeare. And while I don’t doubt her intelligence or her hefty vocabulary (although I have no way of knowing she didn’t just sit there with an open dictionary the whole time she was taking the quiz), I did suddenly doubt my intelligence and vocabulary.
I mean, it’s easy to forgive the meagerness of one’s own lexicon when comparing it to people like the late Christopher Hitchens or the current Rhoda Janzen or, well, any Vanity Fair contributor, whose scarily prodigious vocabularies are equal only to old-school comedian Dennis Miller’s wealth of obscure references. But because I don’t count myself in any of their companies, I didn’t—until recently—feel particularly lessened.
Wanda the Word Nerd is another story. She falls within a range we’d call socially normal (meaning she’s not a savant or anything) and has a job in software. Unless she’s got a secret late-night obsession with Webster I don’t know about, there’s no good reason I should fall short of her in the god-damn quiz!
Other than, I might just be lazy. And I’ve been out of school for awhile. Since no one is asking it of me, I’m not asking it of myself.
Which is why I thought: maybe it’s time to start asking.
So I started making a list.
Every time I encountered a word in a book or an article for which I had a hazy idea at best of its definition, could use it only uncertainly in a sentence, or flat-out didn’t know what the heck it meant, I wrote it down and looked it up later.
That’s how I came to have more than a passing acquaintance with salubrious and inchoate, among others. (I’ll prove it to you: My trip to Whole Foods today offered a salubrious journey into fresh fruits and vegetables, while leaving the ebook I’m supposed to be working on in an inchoate state.)
I know what you’re thinking: since most people in this country read somewhere between a fourth- and an eighth-grade level (don’t quote me on that; it’s the nearest I could get doing a cursory search), why bother with a bunch of multi-syllabic, utterly pretentious-sounding terms I’m unlikely to use in my paid writing anyway?
Sure, part of it’s my ego. But the other part is that enlarging my vocabulary is about crawling out of the slump. Which is to say that I, like a lot of people, end up using the same words over and over again. (Sidebar: my dad uses perspicacious an inordinate amount of times—I’m on to you, Dad—finding ways to slip it into regular ol’ emails and conversations just because I suspect he likes the sound of it). The words I use often also happen to be words I like the sound of…or words that convey the right meaning…or words that have that special sauce when special sauce is what I need. The problem is they end up forming an exclusive club of which few new (or lesser-known or slightly vintage or downright oddball) words are allowed entry, and therefore deteriorate into a puddle of stale, obvious, tweed-wearing, ascot-donning, cigar-smelling, leaves-a-grit-in-your-mouth, fuddy-duddy old mud I’ve grown tired of.
If my brainy friend Micha were reading this, he would run all of my written pieces through some kind of big-data-driven, only-the-government-has-access word-parser and find out which words I use time and again (and send them to me in an easily readable chart for quick and shame-filled reference). He could probably even tell me how many times I string together a host of words with hyphens to create a kind of bumbling, stumbling, Frankenstein of an adjective when I can’t think of a more appropriate one-word adjective to use…you know, on account of my lagging vocabulary…and my apparent unwillingness to sift through a thesaurus.
So I figured learning (or re-learning) all the words on my list can only help me, since I’m pretty sure that one day I actually will need to call upon a larger phraseology, like when the late Christopher Hitchens visits me in a dream and asks me—me!—to write his memoir.
Which is why I’m brushing up on nadir (don’t want to reach that point again after another vocabulary quiz) because I wouldn’t want to seem jejune or anything. Can’t have a recalcitrant attitude when it comes to my own work, now, can I? Can’t be querulous or doggerel. That’ll just seal my bathos (not to be confused with the pathos you might be feeling right about now to the tune of Concerto for Sad and Pathetic Violins No. 1).
And just you wait, random clients for which I write: I might throw in a sneaky specious to jazz up that fourth-grade-sounding paragraph about politics…and you might actually like it—and, perhaps, be inspired to start your own list.