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Friday, 12 November 2021


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I think that the way we had to do it in the pre-internet days made the process of learning a vocabulary more effective. The physical process of looking up a word in the actual dictionary involved more sensory input from the person doing it and IMO made a more long lasting imprint in the brain. You learned so you didn't have to keep repeating the process of looking up the same word over and over.

Googling something is so quick and uninvolved (auto-complete makes it so that you rarely need to type the whole word) that the "learning" is fleeting and you'd be lucky to remember that you looked it up the next time that you came across the same "unfamiliar" word.

. . . the best way for kids to get smart—really, the best way—is for them to study vocabulary.

This egregious misuse of the noun smart is all too common.

I suspect that what you meant is . . . the best way for kids to know a great deal really, the best way—is for them to study vocabulary.

Essential Meaning of smart, from Merriam Webster:

1 chiefly US : very good at learning or thinking about things : intelligent

2 : showing intelligence or good judgment : wise

3 informal + disapproving : behaving or talking in a rude or impolite way : showing a lack of respect for someone

From The Free Dictionary:

a. Having or showing intelligence; bright.

b. Canny and shrewd in dealings with others: a smart negotiator.

a. Amusingly clever; witty: a smart quip; a lively, smart conversation.

b. Impertinent; insolent: That's enough of your smart talk.
Nowhere do they suggest that being good at Jeopardy or Trivial Pursuit, being a great speller or even having an extensive vocabulary, is a part of being smart/intelligent.

Yes, I understand "Her pelucid epistle exacerbated his umbrage at her calumny."

And I am good at crosswords, but do not consider those capabilities to be part of smart. Neither would you, if your vocabulary were accurate.

My father-in-law has one of the widest vocabularies of anyone I know. For a good long while, a hobby of his was working for the OED combing through scans of early printed works and identifying first iterations or uses of particular words. Yup. That's what he did for fun.

On a related note, I am taking a class to certify as an EMT for my local volunteer fire department. Along the way, we have to learn a LOT of medical terminology. Two observations: First, I know a lot of it already because of specific ailments suffered by myself, friends, and family (which would be pretty funny, if the absence of my bilateral menisci weren't causing my articular cartilage to slowly grind away). Second: while I appreciate the need for specificity, I can't help feeling that much of the vocab exists to insulate the medical priesthood from the rest of us slack-jawed mouth breathers. Honestly: you have to auscultate the pulse to take a blood pressure reading? Honestly . . .:rolleyes:

Let me bring your post right back to photography. The idea's are absolutely relevant.

Today's session in my course had the students critiquing each others' "Day in the life of..." exercises. It was lots of fun: they're terrifically constructive while not pulling punches.

I tell them not to get defensive when it's their work being evaluated. In one group, it was starting to sound like the presenter was getting defensive, but it turned out he was genuinely puzzled. He approached me afterwards and noted, "I just learned that most people in this class don't know much about biology".

In a nutshell, he made a "Day in the life" project that required the viewer to have his level of understanding of avian biology, and they did not, so the pictures in the series made no sense to his audience.

His next comment was, "Clearly I'm going to have to make some adjustments to the pictures for my major project."

Bam! Someone just learned something extremely important about the importance of using visual concepts (vocabulary) in our images that make sense to the intended audience.

Your earning power should be phenomenal, Mike!

Incidentally, Foreman didn’t follow the same naming protocol with his seven daughters. And his sons’ names were distinguished by suffixes (and nicknames), as described on Wikipedia and on Foreman’s website…

“Foreman has 12 children: five sons and seven daughters. His five sons are George Jr., George III ("Monk"), George IV ("Big Wheel"), George V ("Red"), and George VI ("Little Joey"). On his website, Foreman explains, "I named all my sons George Edward Foreman so they would always have something in common. I say to them, 'If one of us goes up, then we all go up together, and if one goes down, we all go down together!'"

In some high school class six decades ago I was fortunate to work through "Thirty Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary" and it was just as you described: learn one word and you learn all sorts of stuff ("oh, so there's a word for that..."). Never resulted in much wealth though.

"Of course, to be impressed with that, your middle schooler will need to understand what "correlates" means. :-) "

A smart middle-schooler might respond by telling that there is no need for this learning of new Vocabulary, because when I get rich this will come on its own.

Correlation on the one hand and cause and effect on he other........

This may be how we got to where we are when it comes to people's limited vocabulary:

Many years ago I was a writer - mostly for newspapers. Whenever I needed to write about something nuanced, I would reach into my vocabulary to try and express exactly what I meant. Invariably, the editor would cross out what I wrote, hand it back to me, and tell me to write it over so that it could be understood by someone with sixth-grade reading ability.

I would tell him that we should write for readers who had a good vocabulary because that way we could communicate more effectively with words. He would say that if no one understands what you are saying, then you are not communicating at all.

As a result, we are not exposed to too many interesting words anymore, and having a broad vocabulary is not necessary to understand most of the dumbed-down things we read. It is a shame really.

I can appreciate Edward Taylor’s experience. For writing at work I like to keep a link to OED and Thesaurus.com in my shortcuts. It’s mainly to try and find “le mot juste”, when I can’t recall the particular word I want.
I once used the word ameliorate in a document. My managers liked the document, but spent an inordinate amount of time mulling over whether to include that word.
I had a go at the vocabulary placement test, just for the fun of it. The first 7 groups were easy, but I stumbled up on Group 8. Contrary to David Dyer-Bennet’s comment, I would suggest that simply reading lots won’t necessarily improve one’s vocabulary. I used to read quite a lot (before young family and career) and not just fiction. I recognised many of the words in Group 8 from reading, yet I was not familiar with their meaning. I would try to guess the gist of an unfamiliar word from the context around the word, rather than put the book down and look up a dictionary. Admittedly, that was in the days before smart phones.
My apologies to our North American compatriots. The result of my upbringing and education in Australia is to favour UK spelling, meaning, dictionaries (including for Word and other programs) etc, over Merriam Webster etc. Having stated that, the pervasiveness of US TV, movie and culture more broadly means that the younger generations in Australia tend to use both UK & US interchangeably. That’s not a criticism - culture and language is constantly evolving.
Lastly, to extend on Peter Croft’s comment, I find that I think in short-cut terms, almost a short-hand. When I’m writing something down quickly, it’s Mike’s ‘casualness’, but taken a tad further. I sometimes have to re-write an email or chat message to translate from Ross-mental-shorthand into plain English.
Maybe Twitter (guessing, as I don’t use it) and other chatting apps tend to encourage this - I see it all the time at work where the kids use Slack. And kids to me are pretty much anyone under 30 nowadays :~)

In my youth, before the internet, I always read with a dictionary by my side. I would often get lost in the dictionary, looking up one word after another when I was curious about a word used in a definition. This served me well through a Bachelors, two Masters and a Ph.D. (My wife teaches English at the same university where I teach in the business school, and often pokes fun at my punctuation errors.).

Now, in my late 60's, most of the fiction and much of the non-fiction that I consume is in the form of audio books. This is less conducive to dictionary diving.

Re: Speciousness - It's depressing that Stephen Colbert's Truthiness has basically become the lingua franca of a good portion of media, and even more on social media

I love it when people correct your grammar. The smart money says you’re smarting from some of the half-smart comments of the smart alecks and smarty-pants :).

English grammar; now that's an oxymoron. But for anyone interested, I recommend the 2nd edition of Fowler's Modern English Usage, revised by Sir Ernest Gowers, OUP. I have a 1978 reprint. To give just a taste, one of my favourite entries is a multiple page discussion concerning the split infinitive. It commences, "[t]he English-speaking world may be divided into (1) those who neither know more care what a split infinitive is; (2) those who do not know, but care very much; (3) those who know and condemn; (4) those who know and approve; and (5) those who know and distinguish. ... 1. Those who neither know nor care are the vast majority, and are a happy folk to be envied by most of the minority classes...". And so it goes; just lovely writing and IMHO how all debate about matters of style (ultimately matters of personal taste about which no single correct answer exists) should be conducted; viz., pleasantly, politely and with class.


(Sorry I missed The Best Way to Get Smart and am only now commenting.)

Thanks for such an interesting post and for the link to the Vocabulary Resource page. That site looks quite useful.

If the lessons are as enjoyable as reading a good book, then it will be a valuable tool for building a better vocabulary.

I remember reading an article by William F. Buckley, Jr long ago. He once bet the top editor of Time(?) magazine that an issue of his magazine had fewer "difficult words" than one of Time Magazine's issues. (Wm. Frank knew a few people in the publishing business, as you know.)

It turned out that a Time Magazine issue indeed had more "difficult words" than one of National Review. (Buckley wouldn't have made the bet otherwise.)

Buckley's "problem" was that his "difficult words" weren't easily guessed by context. Thus, people would commonly read his magazine with a dictionary by their side.

Another story from the back page of PC Computing, probably from the early '90s:

Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller) wrote an article about using an unfamiliar word after antagonizing someone to the point of cursing.

Two or three months later, a reader's letter appeared in which he had tried that on no other than newsman Edwin Newman. The man annoyed Mr. Newman so much that Newman called him an A.H. The man said, "Metonymy, right Ed?" Newman paused a second and replied, "No, synecdoche!" The man slunk away to the laughter of those surrounding Edwin Newman.

Those "old time" news people had pretty good vocabularies.

I agree that having a great vocabulary is a wonderful and enriching (not necessarily $$ enriching). However for the stubborn among us having someone tell you that you "should study x" is easily translated to "x is boring and I won't like studying that." Two family examples: my son couldn't understand the value in reading at a young age. "You read to me, my sister reads to me." Then Calvin and Hobbes hit his purview and I said I wouldn't read it to him. His sister said "and I won't read the next Harry Potter to you." Now he has a vast vocabulary and also loves to read!

The second vocabulary story was with my daughter who was taking Spanish in high school and found it kind of boring. She bought the Spanish language version of Harry Potter (there might be an underlying theme here) figuring she loved that and would learn more that way. A love of reading can enrich your vocabulary in any language.

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