Growing a lexicon . . .

Perspicacious: adjective meaning having keen understanding and perception; shrewd; having vision.

More awesome derivation of the word: Perspicacity

This blog is nerdy enough already to handle a picture of this perspicacious fellow, featured in a film I'm just dying to see. Make fun of me all you want.

Ok, this blog is nerdy enough already to handle a picture of this most perspicacious fellow, featured in a recently released film I'm just dying to see. Make fun of me all you want.

Here’s a confession: my vocabulary? Contemptible. My memory for new terms? Even worse. Sometimes I task myself with reciting all the words I’ve blogged along with their definitions, the way one might study for a elementary school vocab quiz. While I can usually remember the meanings, I can’t always recall the terms themselves, which is a little ridiculous, I know, considering I’m the one writing about them. For example, this morning I tried to summon my last entry and got as far as pulvera-wha? before settling on the word perspicacious, which though delightful, isn’t even in the vicinity. I thought I’d potentially created this new word myself – turns out, perspicacious has been a player on the language scene since the 1500’s. It comes to us from the excellent Latin root perspicax – sounds like a noise some kind of crazy bird might make – am I right? But, it’s also possibly a derivative of the latin root perspicere, the origin of a word we all know and use: perspective.

Still, how did this word end up in my personal lexicon? It’s not like I have a perspicacious relationship with the dictionary, though I hope I will someday. And while a quick search of Google Books got me knee-deep in titles that include today’s term in their text, finding out who used which words when is still a hit-or-miss adventure. As much as I’d like to believe I’ve started conjuring new vocabulary out of thin air, it’s more likely that I saw in it in a book or while perusing the Internet. Which only proves what our teachers told us when we were small – the best way to improve your vocabulary is to read, and yes, reading online counts. Did you know your vocabulary probably includes about 60,000 words you use actively and 70,000 words you understand, but don’t really use? Though I’m not sure if there’s a specific term for words we know, but don’t understand, it is amazing how much we absorb when we read.

A couple weeks ago, Philip Corbett, the deputy news editor for the New York Times, and the guy who maintains their style manual, published an entry on his “After Deadline” blog about vocabulary usage in the NY Times. It’s a fascinating article that you might enjoy if you’ve read this far (actually, all of his entries are fun for language geeks). Here are two choice quotes from the article that jumped out at me:

“Our choice of words should be thoughtful and precise, and we should never talk down to readers. But how often should even a Times reader come across a word like hagiography or antediluvian or peripatetic, especially before breakfast?”

“And remember, I’m not trying to ban these or any challenging words. Some uses may be perfectly justified. But we should keep in mind why we’re writing and who’s reading, and under what circumstances. And we should avoid the temptation to display our erudition at the reader’s expense.”

As a reader, I want texts to be accessible because who wants to slog through a parade of fancy terms? But, unlike Corbett says, I read the Times online and I have a frequently-used dictionary on my cellphone, which I’m willing to admit may not be the way others read the paper. I get what he’s saying of course – it’s absolutely important to consider your audience and not show off at the expense of clarity. But, considering the Times’ has one of the more high-brow and educated audiences around, why should they change the way they employ terminology just because they have data to tell them how many people look up those words? I look up words because I’m intrigued, because I want to know and sometimes they just slip into my brain like the word perspicacious — that’s how I grow my vocabulary.

So, gentle readers, if you’re still with me — how often do you look up words?

Categories: etymology, Ponderings | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “Growing a lexicon . . .

  1. antediluvian is one of my favorite words. I think I even wrote about it on my blog one time. Or at least dropped it into a sentence because holy crap it’s great! I discovered it in my word of the day e-mail. Everyone who’s reading this should go look it up right now.

    Also, perspicacious, I once wrote a poem about that word. It was about Justin studying for the GRE. It’s a good word, which reminds me of sagacious, which reminds me of you.

    I was reading Henry James last night and found myself looking up a word every couple of pages. (And this is a book I’m supposed to teach.)

    That concludes my series of loosely-related comments for you today.

  2. The best way to increase your vocabulary is to read, read and read more. Good for you for exercising your brain and keeping the English language alive. Corbett may feel that such words reek of snobbery; to me, they convey intelligence! Though I agree with his point on not confusing your audience, is there anything wrong with educating them at the same time?

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