I happened to see an article this week about how algorithms were used successfully to determine the identity of a very famous writer who was hiding behind a pseudonym. The same article went on to describe how Agatha Christie’s dementia was detectable in her writing based on a diminishing vocabulary. In my previous work with dementia sufferers I had been aware of loss of vocabulary as a sign of cognitive deterioration, I had just never thought about it from a writer’s perspective.
I also, as luck would have it, listened to a talk by Joshua Stephens this week in which he pointed out that we use language to talk to ourselves (that continuous interior monologue) more than we ever do to communicate with others. And the way that we use language affects the way that we understand the world. One example he used was the fact that in Spanish and Italian we “have” hunger, whereas in English we “are” hungry, which implies a different relationship with the bodily sensation or condition as well as a different way of thinking about time. Research in neuropsychology also points toward the interdependence of language and thinking. George Orwell intuited this when he invented the Newspeak of Nineteen Eighty-Four, designed to limit the vocabulary of the populace and thereby limit their thinking, and in the brilliant dystopian novel, Random Acts of Senseless Violence by Jack Womack, the vocabulary of the twelve-year-old protagonist deteriorates as civilization falls to pieces around her.
Most writers and editors will argue that standards for the printed word have been on a downward slide in the recent years, especially since technological shifts have eliminated many paid editing positions and the shift to immediate “real time” reporting doesn’t allow for much proofreading. I was amused to read an ad in a flyer this afternoon for nut butters that don’t include any “salt, sugar, or tropical farts.” But as much as I’m tempted to wring my hands in despair, many will argue that the English language has always been in evolution and that the changes brought about by texting, sexting and tweeting do not reflect on our larger capacity to communicate, and may in fact foster new types of creativity that weren’t available to us before.
Regardless, I think any writer worth her salt would do well to work on improving her vocabulary, and anyone who loves words will do it without any external nudging whatsoever. Words are, after all, the tools of our trade, and the more tools you have at your disposal, the more creative you can be. I remember, as a child, always looking forward to the column in the Reader’s Digest called “It pays to enrich your word power.” I was always excited to test myself against the multiple choice definitions (nerdy, I know), and equally happy to learn a new word when I got one wrong.
Just for fun, I thought I would google (a verb these days) “enrich your word power” to see what suggestions came up. Here are some of the ideas that appeared:
- Love words (we’ll take that one as a given).
- Look up words you don’t know whenever you encounter them.
- Use a thesaurus.
- Read. (My personal recommendation is anything by Nabokov. You will require a dictionary, and you will be taught many English words you never knew existed by this native Russian speaker).
- Study a new language. Learning about how other languages operate often teaches us a great deal about our own.
- Subscribe to Dictionary.com’s Word of the Day. It comes right to your inbox and includes definitions, examples of the word being used in a sentence, and the etymology. Other options include: Wordsmith.org, Vocabulary.com, and a host of other internet-based services.
- Read the etymology of words. I find it helps to understand which language the English word originated from as well as helping me to learn useful root words, prefixes and suffixes.
- Play: Word games, Scrabble, crossword puzzles. There are many available online (check out Reader’s Digest, or Google Apps) as well as via more traditional routes (book stores, toy stores).
- Use the new words you encounter, whenever you can. I have a facebook friend who makes a point of including the word of the day in an unrelated post. Fun, fun, fun for word-geeks.
- Check out Daily Writing Tips. While this blog often relates more to grammar than vocabulary there are often useful posts on frequently confused, abused or misused words. I’ve learned a great deal from it.
If you have more tips for improving vocabulary we’d love to hear about them in the comments.
Until next time,
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Our blog posts will continue over the summer, but we won’t be offering any more writing retreats until the autumn. We hope you’ll consider joining us for a Day Away to Write on October 6, 2013. The leaves will be just starting to turn – a perfect time for a country drive. We’ve also posted our 2014 retreat dates on our home page.