A more powerful vocabulary! More words at our disposal to express ourselves well, convince people, impress and awe them! The more words we know, the better we can think. The dream of every Tom, Dick and Harry who wishes to make good in life.
It seems like yesterday, but decades ago I was a freshman at Duquesne University when I bought a book that promised to fire my language furnace, in a few days, with new and more powerful words. A dream come true. Finally I had the key to, at least, triplicate my vocabulary which would make my studies so much easier to master. I would no longer have to depend on my dictionary so much.
Similar books are still around, very much alive and kicking: 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary, 10 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary, Increase your Word Power, Start Building your Vocabulary, Ten Steps to a more Powerful Vocabulary…As P. T. Barnum said: “You will never go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” I will go further: “You will never go broke underestimating the intelligence of any nationality when it comes to the quick-fix and the shortcut in learning. Why? Because of two hateful words: study and discipline, which seem to be accursed, ill-fated.
Let me go back to the book I bought in my freshman year. I found words like maladroit, abnegation, expiate, bivalve, tenacious, merlot, ology, gauchery, petulant, erudite, querulous, saturnine, pander, parvenue, monocle, martinet, moribund, numismatist, jingoist, bicuspid…All fine and dandy to start a conversation with the cute blonde in my 101 History of Pennsylvania class. Wearing a monocle to really impress her, I could have said that my uncle was a numismatist (he was), and that I was a tenacious student (I was not), although a bit petulant (indeed), and erudite (not quite). I was 18 years old and a parvenue who would have to expiate my desires to conquer the damsel.
But there were more words, most of them of Latin or Greek origin, of course. A sample of true 10-dollar words: Proem. Traduce. Majuscule. Farrago. Impignorate. Perorate. Holograph. Prorogue. Ululant. Argot.
Are these words an example of what they call a powerful vocabulary? A powerful and useless vocabulary, good only to talk to the chosen few, and seldom found in everyday conversation, in contemporary novels or newspapers. We read in Elements of Style: “Anglo-Saxon is a livelier tongue than Latin, so use Anglo-Saxon words.” Do not try to be a pedant, a hairsplitter, by using words like factotum, pharus, precent, martinet… all good for solving crossword puzzles, but certainly not to impress your would-be employer.
We must be practical and remember that words come in context, in conversation, in lectures, in readings… never in lists, because in that case we would simply peruse a dictionary and learn words, one after the other. If we wish to acquire a better and fluent vocabulary we will underline as we read, write down the word and make a note of its meaning. If a turn of phrase catches our fancy, we will do the same, and then use it as soon as possible, in order to enliven our English, or Spanish, or French… always in context, never in lists. And read, read, read. Context is vital.
Not a day goes by that I do not acquire a new word or a new meaning to an old one in either English or Spanish. I kid you not.
This is a daily process. Every day, every day to a larger vocabulary, to the last syllable of our recorded time. And forget books about powerful vocabularies.
Please ignore books that promise to deliver a more powerful vocabulary, and stick to the ten-cent words in your daily discourse.