Hunger for Words

You can expand your knowledge of the world by expanding your vocabulary, yet without showing off.

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Today I learned a new word: grift. It is an informal word meaning to engage in petty or small-scale swindling.

According to the all-knowing internet, the English language contains over 200,000 words, when we include those classed as obsolete. The obsolete words include words like beef-witted and molebat; uranography only just escapes the falling axe of obscurity.

If you were told that uranography is linked to astronomy, you might thrust up your hand and volunteer that it is the study of Uranus, but it simply concerns the mapping of the stars, or in rarer cases it is a reference to heaven, or the heavens. So hands down and let me be the teacher.

As writers we learn to rein in our love of obscure words. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t indulge ourselves in them outside our writing. After all, the most unlikely people turn their basements into BDSM dungeons, so why can’t we have our little secrets too? We have been taught that using big words doesn’t make us sound clever, only pompous. Never use a long word where a short one will do. But I am permitting you to indulge without guilt. The difference is that the world of words is not a dungeon. It is the common ground, a place of sharing, and to treat it otherwise is a misuse. The purpose of stories is to take the reader with us on a journey, not to confuse and frustrate them to no end by the feeling of authorial superiority; not to dominate them. The reason words exist is to efficiently describe, not to make the world less decipherable. This extends to the very existence of literature and art—they are not there for one person to claim cultural superiority over another, but for everyone to understand together.

I had a friend who each day arrived at the same bus stop as me and slotted an obscure word into his morning greeting—a new little something he’d found in the dictionary the evening before. It annoyed me. Everyone has a dictionary, and it’s very easy to find among the 200,000 words ones that others are unlikely to know. There’s nothing clever about it. So don’t do that, but don’t let it stop you from learning a new word every day. It doesn’t have to be an English word—it might be French, Russian, Greek, or Nadsat—but the more words you collect, the more expansive your knowledge of the world will become.

Turn on your word sonar when reading. Don’t skip over the words you only sort-of-know, or for which context enables you to guess—the words you’ve always meant to look up but which you never got around to. They will undoubtedly take you down a rabbit-hole of connections, especially if you look them up on your phone, but it is a rabbit-hole of a good kind—one that will expand your knowledge.

In social situations where you find yourself talking excessively, you will know that this is called pleniloquence (or, more commonly, loquaciousness) but you won’t use either of these words, you will simply know them. There might be one person in the group who points out how loquacious you are being, and you will respond appropriately, signalling your understanding of the word, but even then not trumping it by apologising for your pleniloquence. You are the better person. You could explain how Ralph Waldo Emerson included the word pleniloquence in a letter to Thomas Carlyle on publication of the first volume of his Miscellanies, how he was asked to speak at various institutions including the Cambridge Theological School and Dartmouth College, and remarked on his dislike of American pleniloquence, but you should restrain from shining a light down this rabbit-hole and let others find it for themselves.

Anthony Levings is a writer compelled by capturing moments in time and history.

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