Vocabulary is a word I rarely use. When I do, it is usually in the context of a word not in someone or other’s vocabulary, in an effort to define him or her. As in, “The word ‘hygiene’ is not in his vocabulary.” Defining people and things by what they are not is specious, I’m sure, but I haven’t let it stop me when it seems useful. The most common occurrence of the word “vocabulary” is when someone tells me I have a big one. Vocabulary, that is.
Does Reader’s Digest still have that department called “It Pays to Enrich Your Word Power”? The very title of that section now strikes me as charming and sad. The idea that anyone might be impressed with a large vocabulary seems so 1940s and ’50s. A large vocabulary is a kind of albatross around the neck today or, moving on to a metaphorical mix, a kind of giant shibboleth that identifies you as the enemy. In some small circles — including one in which I think I can count myself a member — pretentiousness is the enemy. Or not so much enemy, as one-to-be-ignored; much like those who use the non-word “irregardless.” The other, much larger camp, to whom a large vocabulary is a red flag signaling the enemy, are those who bristle — not at someone brutalizing the language, but at someone who might know what they are talking about.
Some years ago it was suggested by the courts that I attend group therapy. It was all a misunderstanding and, in the words of Gomez Adams, “I loved my mother and they never proved a thing.” Part of the therapy was to write a multi-page autobiography. After reading my entry aloud, the most consistent feedback I received was along the lines of one fellow’s comment: “You sure use a lot of ten-dollar words.” When asked what ten-dollar words he was referring to, it turned out that he didn’t know the meaning of the word “shoal.” This was in the context of my quoting Sigmund Freud on the subject of dementia praecox and being “stranded on the shoals of puberty.” Given the definition, my therapy friend’s response was to suggest that I say what I mean or, presumably, that Freud say what he means.
I have noticed with increasing frequency over the years that people are often puzzled by what I say. As often as not, I get a knee-jerk, “What?,” sometimes even before I am done speaking. Many people seem to expect me to say something cryptic when I am trying to be anything but obtuse. It doesn’t help that I have the habit of listing synonyms for words I’ve chosen in conversation. For example, “The characters in the movie were very disparate, you know, different from each other, from different backgrounds.” To which I will often hear, “I know what disparate means,” said with an offended tone.
As for people squinting at me once they realize I am speaking (often saying nothing more than “top of the morning” or such) and cutting me off with a “What?” — I now treat the problem with a new kind of freedom. I can pretty much say anything as an opening remark (“your mother wears army boots”), as long as I’m willing to follow it up with something harmless, and speak slowly (“your mother swears I’m real cute”). Sense is expendable anyway in these situations.
Youth once again is the culprit in the new illiteracy, co-opting perfectly good words for shorthand flippancy, often resulting in nonsequiter. Take the word “random.” It’s been hijacked to mean “out of left field” or “out of nowhere,” “apropos of nothing” or “beside the point.” It has at least replaced the threadbare “whatever,” and carries the implication that its user has given the phenomenon of chaos and the unpredictable much thought. Other examples are the popular “bad” to mean “good,” “fat” (or “phat”), a term that suggests one’s approval of whatever one is referring to. At least, that’s the closest I can get to it. And words like “radical” and “awesome” are examples of perfectly good words devalued, maybe forever, along with having their definitions inadvertently reversed: what is described as “radical” or “awesome” invariably isn’t.
Vocabulary words enlisted into usage for no other reason than to display one’s vocabulary are easy to pick out. One that came up recently is “disingenuous,” which means insincere or not frank. Coming from a friend of mine, who would be unlikely to sling any five-syllable words in daily conversation, this stood out so thoroughly from his usual choices as to seem a hilarious malapropism — though it wasn’t in this case; he used it correctly. The fact that he substituted “disingenuous” for “freakin’ bullshit” is what struck me as out of character. A woman friend told me that the same word came under the heading of bête noires that escape her vocabulary: she’ll memorize its meaning, then promptly forget it. Other vocabulary words artificially impressed into service to impress are words like “collateral” and “fiduciary” and “empower.” Of course there are hundreds more in this category. None strike me as shibboleths of the enlightened or gang patois among intellectuals, exactly; but words like them are bound to cue someone that you’re some sort of smart cookie.
Not to say I am unimpressible. Reading the novels of the late Anthony Burgess is an act of creativity in itself (as good reading should be) that demands the presence of a dictionary. Burgess will utilize phrases like “benidicent numen” and “mephitic hogo,” word pairings even the spelling-and-grammar program on my computer asks me to explain. The Oxford American is of no help here, but years ago I had the compact edition of The Oxford English Dictionary (two volumes and a magnifying glass) and I puzzled them out. A “benidicent numen” would be a kind of benevolent spiritual light, something like a halo (if you think I’m wrong, please write in) and a “mephitic hogo,” I am fairly confident, is a diabolical stench, specifically, very bad breath.