Learn A New Word Every Day?

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Some people are very keen to increase their vocabulary – hence the popularity of books, apps and even toilet paper promising to expand your lexicon. Youtube videos and “life hack” style articles abound, and for efficient self-improvement you can sign up to a daily feed of new words to memorise, from abaxial to zephyrean.

The size of an individual’s vocabulary generally correlates with their education level; but there’s a huge difference between the number of words you know and the number of words you actually use; and another huge gap between the number of words you use in your writing or profession and the number of words you use in ordinary conversation. A university professor might know her juxtaposition from her co-dependancy, but her exchanges with her family might be mostly limited to “I’m knackered” and “takeaway for tea?”

The question is, why do you want to increase your vocabulary? Is it because you want to sound clever? Impress your friends, impress your enemies, impress your boss? Do you find yourself trying to crowbar dictionary.com’s “word of the day” into your work meetings? “Ah yes, Alison, perhaps we could approach the question of coffee bilaterally?”

Or do you yearn for a larger vocabulary so you can express yourself more fully? There’s an interesting theory of linguistics proposing that language directly influences thought: the more broad and nuanced your language, the more broad and nuanced your thinking, and even your understanding of the world. If you can only describe the weather as “windy”, you’re missing out on the evocative subtleties of “tempestuous” “squally” and “boisterous”. Language is a tool for communication, and a tool for thinking, and the more words you know then the more precise, expressive and flexible that tool can be.

So how can you improve your vocabulary? It’s obvious really – use words and enjoy them. Read, talk; notice new words, find out what they mean. Read good literature (that’s not just good advice for building vocabulary – it’s good advice for life); engage in interesting conversations with interesting people. Don’t be too proud to look up the meanings of words, and don’t be afraid to try new words out.

But don’t – please – ever, ever, be tempted to use a thesaurus like some sort of word replacement algorithm. It’s lazy, empty-headed and risky, and you could ruin your writing and end up looking strange and stupid. Or rather: it’s indolent, bare-brained and vapid, and one may decimate one’s calligraphy and arrive simulating esotericism and fatuousness.

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