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Read Any Good Vocabulary Lately?

I've been rereading some of my favorite O. Henry short stories including "The Gift of the Magi" and "The Ransom of Red Chief". I was also recently watching the History Channel (U.S.) where they were running spots featuring great quotes from Franklin D. Roosevelt, Kennedy and Lincoln and some quotes from George "W". It has struck me how significantly our use of language has changed.

Just forty years ago, we had an erudite, poetic president who proclaimed "Ask not ...". Sixty years ago, another erudite president described the attack on Pearl Harbor as "...a day that will live in infamy". Now "infamy" isn't such a big word, but the style of this statement, like the style of many of Kennedy's more memorable phrases, made them memorable and unique. Compared to these, George "W" used nothing more memorable than words like "good" and "evil". I'm not knocking President Bush, but I think it is a sign of our times.

I was rereading O. Henry in expectation of using some of his short stories for communications demonstrations. His stories are old enough that they should be "public domain" and, sure enough, I did find some of them in "Project Gutenberg". More importantly, his stories are as delightful today as they were about a century ago. Well, almost. As I read the stories, I made a note of words I thought might be unfamiliar to my students. I found about sixty words in "The Ransom of Red Chief" and forty or so in "The Gift of the Magi" that might prove troublesome. Even with this large number of unfamiliar words, Microsoft Word set the Flesch-Kincaid reading grade level at about 5 or 6. In truth, the sentence length, comprehension and even word-length, on average, make the stories easy to read. But that vocabulary! What effect would so many unusual words have on a modern reader? By no means do I have a large vocabulary, although I would like to think that my reading, and to a lesser extent, my writing vocabularies are greater than the average person. But even I had trouble with more than a few of these words. There were about a dozen, altogether, that were words I could guess at, but didn't really recognize at all. Several more were words that I have seen in books or articles several times, but that I'm still not certain of their exact meanings. And the rest were quite usable words that were of no particular problem to me, but which might cause difficulties for my students.

Would the average reader today be able to read O. Henry's work and not get bogged down in some of the unusual vocabulary? Or would this reader give up and miss out on some of the finest story telling ever put on paper? It would be a shame if O. Henry ceased to be read because of his superior use of words.

O. Henry, of course, is not alone. Each year, Shakespeare gets harder and harder to read and understand as our language changes and the scope of our vocabularies shrink. And what about a masterpiece of holiday cheer such as Dickens' A Christmas Carol? We've all seen one or more (I've seen and enjoyed almost all of them) of the film versions of this tale, but who has actually read the original novelette? I read it again a couple of years ago and was struck at the large number of difficult words I encountered. In time, of course, our changing language will make Dickens and O. Henry as incomprehensible as Shakespeare and Chaucer are rapidly becoming.

To be fair, our vocabularies carry a fair number of words that would be completely unintelligible to O. Henry. He would be familiar with "telephone", "electricity" and "automobile", but would have no idea of words such as "laser", "ultra-sound" or the "Internet". Still, nothing so broadens our minds and our understanding (or vice versa) as our vocabulary. Why not make it a point to learn a new word every day? And don't pick words such as O. Henry's "philoprogenitiveness" - which roughly means "love of your children" - a word you would probably never use again.

Reading is, of course, one of the best ways to pick up new words. However, if you just skip over unfamiliar words, you'll learn very little, if anything. First, try to see if the word is made up of other words (in English or perhaps Latin) that you are familiar with. (That's what I did with the word above. I did not look it up in a dictionary, at least not yet, but I knew that "Philo" means love and "progeny" are one's offspring (or children) so I just put the two together. However, I took it one step further: I checked to see if my definition made sense in the context of the passage. Since it did, I was/am fairly certain that I have at least a rough idea of what the word means. Since I am extremely unlikely to use such a word in future, that's as far as I would go with this word.

However, what about such a word as "proclivities" or "palatable"? You may well know one or both words, and you probably have a good idea of what one or both mean, but are you really sure of their meaning and use? Could you use them confidently in your own speech or writing? That's the next step to really making a difference to your vocabulary. Choose a word that you might want to use in future. Check its definition and use in a good dictionary. Then use it in a few sentences. Try to use it in a conversation as well as in your writing. Only then have you really increased your vocabulary.

Forty years from now, will your heart still stir when you read or hear quotes from George W. Bush the way mine does when I hear a quote from Kennedy and Roosevelt, or when I hear a speech like "Four score and seven years ago ..."

Copyright © 2001 by Fred Oldfield. All rights reserved.


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