by Julia Sneden
Having been born into a word-loving family, I never really had to work at developing an extensive vocabulary. It was simply there in my ears, every day, all day long from the day of my birth, by virtue of the conversations around me. Once I could talk, I was encouraged to ask for a definition if I didn’t understand the meaning of a word — until, that is, I learned to read, at which point the immediate response would be: “Go look it up.” As I grew older, those words weren’t even necessary: a simple gesture to the bookshelves sufficed. Eventually, I didn’t bother to ask, unless I had to question the spelling. I just trotted over to the dictionary and plunged in.
It’s a habit that continues to this day, although thanks to technology I can now stay seated at my computer and call up Mr. Webster. I used to long for an Oxford English Dictionary, the big edition, on a stand in the dining room, since in our house that’s where most family conversations occur. We couldn’t afford the Oxford, however, and had to settle for a well-used Webster’s Collegiate that threatened to fall apart whenever you picked it up. My adult sons to this day laugh and roll their eyes and head for the bookshelf when they hear a new word (if they’re in my presence, that is. I don’t know what they do when they’re by themselves, but I know what I hope they do). They know better than to expect a verbal definition from me.
A true word-lover never looks at just the one word for which she’s searching. Her eye moves up and down, taking in all sorts of tangential information. Who ever considered, for instance, that sexagenarian (being sixty years old) sits just down the page from sex act, or a bit above sexappeal. And Lolita, which is defined as “a precociously seductive girl” is directly followed by loll, “to hang loosely or laxly: DROOP.” Falling in love with the dictionary takes time, perhaps, but once it occurs, it’s a lifelong affair. A friend of mine claims to read the dictionary like a novel. Me, I just browse.
My call-up computer dictionary lacks this added pleasure, since you get nothing but a definition for the word you type in. It’s a matter of speed and efficiency versus leisure and curiosity. There’s a place in life for both.
Along with a fierce love for words goes an addiction to them as play things, as in rhymes, alliteration, crossword puzzles, acrostics, and even pursuing a word’s etymology. That process is defined by Webster’s Collegiate as searching for the history of a word as
" ...shown by tracing its development since its earliest recorded occurrence in the language...by tracing its transmission from one language to another, by analyzing it into its component parts, by identifying its cognates in other languages, or by tracing it and its cognates to a common ancestral form in an ancestral language.”
That’s a lot of words which can probably be translated into something like pedigree.
For Christmas last year, I received a calendar titled Forgotten English, a delightful 4x5 inch set of pages to tear off, each filled with an odd word, and a paragraph of historical esoterica. A recent page headlines: “Wordsmanship,” which is defined as “Knowledge or command of words.” The following paragraph quotes from the work of Richard Chenevix Trench (1807-1886), an Irish linguist and Archbishop of Dublin:
"Language is the amber in which a thousand precious thoughts have been safely embedded and preserved. It has arrested ten thousand lightning-flashes of genius which, unless thus fixed, might have been as quickly passing as the lightning.”
As my Thought for the Day, that can hardly be beat. Now all I need is the lightning-flash of genius.
Compared to my erudite brother, I have to confess that I am just an amateur lover of words. He is a philologist by profession (philologist: oh, go look it up!), and knows several languages, including some of the many California Indian languages. If I get too uppity, he manages, without even trying, to put me in my place and keep me there.
Still, while my fires don’t burn as brightly as his, I can hold my own in all but the most esoteric discussions. The best thing about loving the English language is that making progress in it is a lifelong pursuit. If you’re interested in a painless way to expand your vocabulary, you might want to check out one of the following, a couple of which offer an email word-of-the-day possibility.
There are also several sites that specialize in giving ESL speakers a word a day, but they tend to offer fairly simple words.
I might also mention www.ForgottenEnglish.com, where the author of my “Forgotten English” calendar peddles his wares. In addition to the calendar, he has written several books, and the site also offers a great list of helpful links.
While I’m at it, let me mention another of my favorites, a site called “Luciferous Logolepsy” at www.kokogiak.com/logolepsy. It specializes in obscure English words, most of which are no longer in use, and it’s lots of fun for any devoted logoleptic like Yours Truly.