“Vocabulary enables us to interpret and to express. If you have a limited vocabulary, you will also have a limited vision and a limited future.” — Jim Rohn
New words have always been drilled into our minds. Initially small and minimal in complexity, vocabulary was learned through spelling tests and sentence practice. Over the years, the words grew larger. Their complexity levels increased, their definitions became taxing to learn and even more difficult to memorize. The weekly vocabulary tests insisted upon by teachers in middle school and high school seemed more tedious than beneficial to our learning. For some, the handouts given in class with the twenty new words to learn induced an involuntary eye roll or a shudder of anticipated discontent. Others jumped at the chance to find a new way to vocalize a simple term. They hungrily learned the exhaustive lists, eager to begin swapping out the bland, overused words of daily conversation for ones of a more scholarly or sophisticated nature.
Personally, I am an example of the latter. Each vocabulary word was printed carefully onto a flashcard and practiced aloud until I could recite it without hesitation. I looked forward to the weekly quizzes simply as a means to beat my quiz taking time from the previous week. However, as I learned and practiced these new additions to my available lexicon, I realized that the opportunity to use many of them was rather limited. My friends that did not share the same love of English class were not a welcoming conversational audience to practice implementing the weekly words. With this, I couldn’t help but wonder if I should consider myself as inadvertently pedantic and attempt to better cater my language to those with less interest or experience.
Within the community of English majors and those who simply enjoy reading and writing, there is a place to be rather verbose with your words. Others appreciate the eloquence your words may bring. To find the perfect adjective to describe a character in your story or lesser-known noun to complete the void in your poem is a feeling of true success and pride. With those who do not quite understand the appeal of looking up the word your favorite author included in his latest work to truly understand the context, there is a lesser attraction to the usage of complex vocabulary.
Pragmatics of language often lead us to abide to the societal context and better correspond with our conversational partner. We attempt to match the level of formality, or rather informality, of speech and allow this to dictate our interaction. An interview or conversation with a professor is undoubtedly more formal than a movie night with your closest friends and requires a more scholastic array of vocabulary. This carries into writing. When writing for a professor, at an academic level, you tend to adopt a formal demeanor. Even when an assignment is intended to be informal or more catered to peer review, removing yourself from an academic persona can still be difficult, especially when considering the continued existence of educational association. There exists an urge to adopt a vocabulary of a more scholarly nature and to surpass the simplistic means of daily vernacular.
This urge is often greeted with commentary that suggests perhaps utilizing a lesser inclusion of academic language. To justify your thoughts or analysis in a means that is better understood by a larger audience. Yet, if this vocabulary now exists naturally in your writing or speaking, due to years of reading and practicing to aid in expansion, must you truly regress or alter your form of communication? With the suggestion of better addressing a certain, more informal audience, one cannot help but question, “Am I the issue within the dyadic interaction?”
Stephen Chbosky once said, “What’s the point of using words nobody else knows or can say comfortably? I just don’t understand that.” Perhaps he is right. Maybe we should limit our words to only those that give us immediate satisfaction and explanation but if we were to do so, we lose the beauty of knowing the words that can perfectly describe a feeling or state of mind. Words that aren’t commonly used but when found can sum up an indescribable emotion or sensation that you felt that you had previously found to inadequately described by a word. Take the word, “kairos.” Defined as “the perfect, delicate, crucial moment; the fleeting rightness of time and place that creates the opportune atmosphere for action, words, or movement,” it’s a word that holds power and beauty in a definition that would otherwise be left unlearned if vocabulary was to be limited for the comfort of others.
Extensive, complex vocabulary may remain an issue of pragmatic debate, but to limit yourself for the ease of others would deprive you of the opportunity to find the terms that may perfectly say what you have always felt.
Emily Zimmer is junior studying English and Speech Language Hearing Science at the University of Connecticut. She is on the fiction panel at the Long River Review.