Vocabulary

From the vantage point of the guy who apparently knows too much about writing essays compared to everybody else… I get to see a lot of people’s writing. And because I’m too altruistic, pedantic, and good at procrastination, I correct a lot of errors. Aside from these, which I think are mostly rather average errors, there is one other thing that sticks out at me: the vocabulary words.

I’ll get straight to the point. I don’t think that learning vocabulary out of a book of vocabulary words is a good idea. There’s rarely, if ever, any logic to which words are lumped together in a “lesson”. Of course, unless we’re talking about words in the nomenclature (whee!) of a particular scientific discipline or something, most words can’t be categorized like that at all, but that doesn’t mean we should just pick them out of a hat. It’s very reasonable to read a book at the right difficulty and select the hard words to learn, like we did with Hiroshima. Furthermore, simply giving the definition of a word is absolutely not enough to allow people to start using the word smoothly. There are the connotations and occasionally problems like whether the word is commonly applied to people or objects, concrete or abstract things, and so on. There would be exceptions if “cat” sounded like the sound a cat makes like it does in so many other languages, but no, English is too crazy for that.

Why do we care about vocabulary so much (e.g. in the SAT)? Fundamentally, vocabulary is about memorizing associations between sequences of letters and meanings. You can cut some corners with knowing root words and affixes, as well as recognizing context, but the hard part is just memorizing the associations, most of which were arbitrarily made up, the rest of which were derived from other associations which were arbitrarily made up.

I admit, vocabulary isn’t just testing how good people are at memorization, because you are exposed to it every time you use the language, so it’s probably not a terrible measure of reading skill. But the whole thing is artificial! All the difficulty in the subject, the screwed-up spellings and confusingly similar words, was put there by humans. So the math sections are really lame too, but at least the problems’ difficulty are inherent in the uncreative initial conditions, instead of being caused by 1000 years of stupid linguistic choices.

Then, what use is memorizing a bunch of words and definitions and not doing anything with them? But trying to use a vocabulary word you just learned often is pretty awful, too. If you just indiscriminately (promiscuously! haha) substitute more obscure synonyms of your normal conversational words into your normal speech, you run several risks: one, sounding like an obnoxious know-it-all; two, forcing people to ask what your word means and having to sidetrack your perfectly fine conversations; three, messing up some less obvious connotations or normal usage notes in the word and looking silly in front of the really smart person. So there’s pretty much no point in learning this stuff, except for some deep reading and the tests. Or if you have fun learning words for its own sake, maybe. And the result, of course, is a bunch of words that just stand out weirdly in people’s essays.

Also, it is often extremely difficult to try using some words in conversation or even in a piece of writing. If the word is weird or funny enough (e.g. hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia) you can randomly use it to impress your friends (but it definitely doesn’t work for that word anymore, which everybody knows about). The most obscure word I can think of off the top of my head is “skeuomorph“, which I only found by flipping through the dictionary. Try using that in a conversation! Its definition isn’t even that uncommonly applicable, but since nobody knows what you’re talking about, you have to write out the definition anyway. So the more words you learn, the more likely you’ll have somewhat forgotten it by the time you run across a place you can actually use it fittingly, and you end up either not using it at all or having to struggle with the tip-of-your-tongue sensation for a long time, possibly even requiring an Internet call for help.

Okay, you might say that I’m being really hypocritical, cf. any rant on this blog. Trust me, it was once much worse. There’s the time I decided to put the word “syzygy” into a book report in fifth grade. I think I mention this anecdote too often, but you get the point. I can even explain why I liked the word so much: it was because of the descender loops. You know, when you write the letters in cursive and you loop the pencil below the baseline and then cross itself in a majestic uppercut to connect to the next letter! It feels so good, particularly when you get five loops in a six-letter word! Not that I normally write in cursive. I think about one person in our class does that and it’s the least likely candidate on the surface. But we’re getting sidetracked, aren’t we?

I just use words when I feel like doing so, I suppose. Maybe I should fight the trend so that my posts are a bit more accessible, although that might be slightly condescending. Maybe there’s no point in worrying about something like this.

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One thought on “Vocabulary

  1. don’t worry i can understand the vocabulary on this blog adequately enough (maybe not skeuomorph though heh)

    ok fine i’m an (essentially) native speaker

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