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.
As for my own bête noires, they are embarrassingly unambitious: “impecunious,” “pernicious,” “replete,” “pluperfect”… etcetera. There are more, but let’s take “replete,” meaning full, stocked, or gorged. Yes, I have a dictionary right here — but two weeks from now, when the word might come in handy, I won’t, and I’ll be hazy on it again. In this case, the reason I can’t remember its meaning (I’m guessing) is because it is too similar to “complete.” I have just decided I will remember it as a fatter complete and see if that works. As for the others, except “pluperfect,” I have faith that I will eventually sort them out. I confuse “pernicious,” “impecunious,” and something else with Ps and Cs and an “ious” ending, and if these don’t sort themselves out, I will continue to boycott them. “Pluperfect” I avoid because of a mental block originating with a sadistic English teacher sophomore year, the details surrounding said block I am advised not to comment on until the statutes of limitations have run their course.
For years I had trouble with words like toward, as opposed to towards. There are others (“apropo” and “apropos” for example). I have concluded that I will employ the shorter spelling, “toward,” only because it is more economical by one letter. The same goes for other cases where the “s” is expendable and does not denote a plural or plurality (another example). Even though “s” at the end of “apropos “is appropriate, I still amputate it, and I am still at large. Ah, “plurality” is a perfectly good word, but it reminds me of my friend and his symptomology.
Why Larry, who has studied chemical dependency for several years on both sides of the experience, insists on using “symptomology” rather than “symptoms,” is solely to call attention to his qualifications, and is therefore the symptomology of the insecure. Had Larry once used the word (and I can’t find it in the Oxford American) to refer to a science, a study of symptoms, I wouldn’t say so; but he never has.
There are words one falls in love with once one’s attention is called, and these we tend to hammer into the ground. I had that experience last year with the word “draconian,” meaning severe or harsh. Taken from the name Draco, a Greek politician in 621 BC who legislated execution for minor crimes, I began ascribing the word to everyone from landlords and cops to Roger Hedgecock and Rush Limbaugh. I now maintain a moratorium on its use.
Acquaintances will spring words on me, assuming I am equipped with some seal of approval. A recent one was “cherubic,” in reference to a bobble-head doll to be given away with donations valued over a certain amount. I was told that the doll’s head was the likeness of: “Father Joe Carroll! Can you believe that? The bobbling little cherubic face of Father Joe bouncing around in his collar and everything. Hey, John, cher-oobic. Pretty good, eh?” Until then, it hadn’t occurred to me that the word might be considered impressive vocab ammo, but you never know.
I once identified a gangster character in a suspense novel as an illiterate dolt by increasing his vocabulary to a ridiculous degree. It is a kind of standard hack ploy in pulp fiction, but it’s still working, even on The Simpsons. In the first line of dialogue I had for Vincent Fratonio, he tells his moll-like girlfriend, “You look resplendent tonight.” Even though he used the word correctly, I believed it announced him as an idiot without saying so. In case readers might have assumed that the guy was just natively eloquent, I added, “You should wear cerulean gold and pearls always.” If the reader didn’t catch that, I wasn’t going to chase them.
For what it’s worth, here are these notes on increasing your word power. Take them or not, me and my ten-dollar words, or, hell, defenestrate them both. — John Brizzolara