Depending on who you ask, the average person has a vocabulary between 3,000 and 30,000 words. Most “authoritative” books that are supposed to improve your vocabulary suggest between 3,000 and 10,000. The more education you have, the higher your vocabulary typically gets. This is not necessarily because more formal education makes you smarter, but because the more education you have, the more specialized your vocabulary becomes. By the eighth year of med-school, doctors may not be increasing their general man-on-the-street vocabulary, but they add tons of medical terms to the arsenal.
What is the best way to improve your vocabulary? Is it by purchasing a bunch of vocab-building programs? Maybe, but I’ve never done that. I would suggest that your humble dictionary is the greatest and most underused tool for building your knowledge of words and their meanings.
Why you should care about improving your vocabulary
- There are concepts and ideas that you owe it yourself (and your society) to be conversant with
- Many of these concepts and ideas can only be understood through certain words
- If you don’t know those words, you can’t express your opinions on those concepts or issues
- If you can’t express your opinions and verbalize (or write) your thoughts, you have to rely on someone else to do it for you
- You better hope you can trust the people who interpret your information for you
An acquaintance recently yammered in my ear for an hour about how screwed up the American Electoral college system is. The irony is that this person is more right than he knows, but he can’t begin to tell you why the system is screwy: only that it is. Think about the phrase “electoral college.” Do you know what it means? Do you really?
Ask yourself electoral means, or Google it. Now ask yourself what college means, or Google it. Each word is easy enough to grasp on its own, but together they mean something different. If you encounter the phrase during some light bedtime civics study before you turn the light out, maybe you can get the meaning from context…but maybe you can’t.
Ask yourself: how frightening would it be if only politicians could express and engage with political ideas? (insert shiver here…). These sorts of fears are at the core of books like 1984. Many literary visions of nightmare-futures involve the control of information from the top…as well as the loss of understanding at the bottom.
Your options when you read words you don’t know
- Skip over it and hope that context (the surrounding words and sentences) will clarify the meaning
- Take a second to look it up
Possible consequences of skipping over a word
- Context does clarify it and all is well
- Context does not clarify it and you either press through or give up and turn out the light
Cumulative brain fatigue
I’m not going to quote science at you because I’m lazy and dumb, but this has been my experience: when I skip over too many words, my brain gets exhausted. The result is that my brain literally forces me to stop sooner than I want to. No matter if I planned on reading for an hour. Something happens when I skip over too many words hoping for understanding that doesn’t come. It freaks out my mind to the point where it rebels and quits trying to comprehend things. It says “This strain is not worth it” and refuses to help anymore.
But what if you look the words up?
- You avoid or delay brain fatigue
- You learn new words
- You improve your memory
- By learning new words you improve your ability to think and reason
- By improving you ability to think and reason…well, is there any downside, other than giving up the metaphorical bliss of ignorance?
I know, it sounds kind of boring. You may never hear a nerdier statement, but dictionaries are REALLY COOL. There is a lot more in your dictionary than the definitions of words. In a decent dictionary you also get commons uses of the word, examples of how it has been used in the past, origins of the word, et cetera. Is your heart pounding yet? Probably not, but don’t feel bad…you’re talking to someone who asked for a new set of dictionaries as a college graduation present.
It’s worth reading with a dictionary, even if you hate it…
Aside from the benefits already mentioned, if nothing else, the sooner you start reading with a dictionary, the sooner you can stop. Will you ever know every word? I hope not, because the only people who trot out words like steatopygous (google it…actually an awesome word) or Heidegerrian during casual conversations are probably just insecure and need compliments. Don’t be one of them. (And yes, I know these words, but I don’t use them).
The more often you turn to your dictionary, the less often you’ll have to turn to your dictionary. It’s that simple. However, once you start using it, I hope you’ll find that you spend more time using it than ever. It’s fun to improve at anything, but improving your mind is a gift to yourself. Not only is it fun, it is essential.
All joking aside, if you let your vocabulary shrink, you will lose some of your ability to think complex thoughts. And I don’t mean complex as in “How is Lost going to end?” I mean complex as in:
- Who do I vote for and why?
- Does what I read in the news make sense? Could I take apart this argument if I needed to?
By improving your vocabulary you will be better able to defend your convictions. You do not have to believe anything just because someone says so. That is priceless.
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