My optometrist is an erudite man with diverse interests. Two years ago, the previous time I had reason to call on his services, we discussed in detail the history of the American West, Wyatt Earp, and the mythos of the gunfighter. He was delighted with my knowledge on the topics. Today we covered the movie Defiance, World War II, the Holocaust, philosophy, and I had the occasion to thrill him with the use of the words ‘penultimate’ and ‘ultimate’ in reference to the last and second to last of the letters on the eye chart. He simply enjoyed the use of language.
It caused me to pause and think. I have had many reactions to my casual usage of what most people refer to as ‘long’ words. The majority infer that I’m an egghead. Others are amused and tease me, but I’ve always assumed that was a way of covering up discomfort. It seems to me that most people are intimidated by the use of words outside their vocabulary because they are afraid that the user of such words will assume them to be stupid by their lack of familiarity. As point of fact I do not consider the use of an extensive vocabulary to be an indicator of much, except maybe a love of words. I happen to love words. When I read I absorb them, which has often led to seriously amusing mangling of pronunciation thus making me feel foolish or lacking in education when speaking to those who are easily able to correct me.
Why do I absorb words and then have the audacity to use them? Our educational system excludes the study of vocabulary once you hit college except as a form of jargon for the different fields. I confess to autodidactism in the learning of language. Use unusual words, however, and in conversation you can be dismissed as a swat, bore, or worse stuck up. I actually don’t sit down to read up on new words to use, and in reality my vocabulary is no where near the level of a scholars, but it is the love of language that causes my brain to be attracted to good words like sunflowers follow the sun. They don’t have to be long. Formative years in England added a fillip of Britishisms that often bear explaining to my Yank compatriots. I’m equally as likely to resurrect an archaic word as grab hold of a new one and make them fadge together. You can google ‘fadge’ to get my drift.
While I have been writing this piece I have been eyeballing my Twitter feed. There was a quote retweeted (ah, jargon how I love thee) that opined that Twitter helped people to write better because the 140 character limit forced people to be more concise and clear. Ah, if only that were true – it’s equally likely to teach them to abbreviate. And who the heck says that brevity is the true yardstick of good writing? Soon a novel need only be a haiku. A love of words is not to be despised. The diversity of the English language, its veritable smorgasbord of linguistic delights, is what makes it such an incredibly powerful tool for art, wit, and communication.
Clarity is almost always to be sought, but that doesn’t mean complexity is to be eschewed in the same breath. Nor is complexity and vocabulary to be mistaken for erudition. I have cast aside, as a waste of time, tomes of merciless labyrinths of grammar and word that overwhelm meaning with the sheer serpentine convolutions of an author hiding their dearth of original thought behind a wall of cornstalks.
In conclusion, I believe that good writing and good vocabulary go hand in hand. Embrace the diversity of your language, and don’t be afraid to grab the dictionary or to try out that cool new word you read the other day. It’s just like experimenting with spices when you’re expanding your culinary repertoire, and I’ll continue to delight my optometrist at every opportunity.