Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Where the Bones Are Buried, the fifth book in the series, is in bookstores now . You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at http://www.jeannematthews.com
Every time I visit Great Britain, I come home with an expanded vocabulary. Reading the morning newspapers is a humbling experience. Journalists don’t dumb down their prose or tone down their political observations. One editorialist described the House of Lords as a “worm farm of claret-gargling, bien pensant quangocrats.” I was pretty confident about the meaning of worm farm and claret, but had to slink off to Wiktionary to learn that a bien pensant quangocrat was a more or less orthodox member of a quasi-governmental organization. Live and learn.
The insertion of the French phrase sounds a tad pretentious and pedantic, but the astounding thing to me was that the writer expected the average British newspaper reader to know what he meant. On that sceptered isle, it’s not just the writers who wield a formidable vocabulary. The British public seems to have and make use of a more diverse mix of words in their everyday speech than Americans. Anyone who has listened to their comments and complaints about Britain’s messy exit from the European Union has to agree they have a flair for expression.
“Now is the time to stiffen the sinews and summon up the blood.”
“So mental a political tap-dance, that it makes riding a porcupine bareback over a cliff seem the sane thing to do.”
They don’t sugarcoat their book reviews either. “A Pooterishly embarrassing piece…A fire-lighter of vanity, self-pity and logorrhoeic dullness” sniped one critic. I had to look up both Pooterish and logorrhoeic. Pooterish alludes to a fictional character in a comic English novel and means self-important and narrow-minded. Logorrhoeic means a pathologically excessive and sometimes incoherent tendency to wordiness. Using too many words to make one’s point can be annoying, but having precisely the right words at one’s disposal eliminates the need for added description and explanation. The larger the vocabulary, the more concise the writing.
A writer’s vocabulary is her toolbox and a reader’s vocabulary is his key to reading comprehension. A word comes into existence when it is used by one person and understood by another. If you can’t give a name to something, you can’t think it. The English language has between one and two million words, more than any other language, and a new word is coined every 98 minutes. Only savants, lexicographers, and championship Scrabble players know more than 100,000 or so. Professor David Crystal, a language researcher, suggests that a person can estimate the size of his vocabulary by taking a sample twenty pages from a basic dictionary, counting the words he knows, dividing by the number of sample pages, then multiplying by the number of pages in the dictionary. A reasonably educated person will know approximately 75,000 words, of which only about two-thirds find their way into his normal conversation.
Nothing builds vocabulary like reading and the mystery genre is blessed with a number of clever wordsmiths. One of my favorites is the late (but thank heavens, prolific) Reginald Hill. In his Dialogues with the Dead, the murderer was a “paronomaniac” – defined by a forensic psychologist as “someone obsessed with language, not just on a linguistic level, but at a philosophical level, maybe even a magical level.” If that sounds logorrhoeic, Inspector Andy Dalziel sums it up more succinctly. “So we’re looking for a nut who likes doing riddles and crosswords.”
Kate Atkinson differentiates her characters by the words they choose to express themselves. Here’s a quote from One Good Turn: “Julia’s vocabulary was chock-full of strangely archaic words – ‘spiffing,’ ‘crumbs,’ ‘jeepers’ – that seemed to have originated in some prewar girls’ annual rather than in Julia’s own life. For Jackson [Atkinson’s series detective], words were functional, they helped you get to places and explain things. For Julia, they were freighted with inexplicable emotion.”
From 1945 to 1965, Wilfred J. Funk (of Funk & Wagnalls Dictionary fame) contributed a column to Reader’s Digest called “It Pays to Increase Your Word Power.” It was one of the most popular features in the magazine, continued after Wilfred’s death by his son Peter. “Whenever we learn a new word,” said Peter, “it is not just dumped into our ‘mental dictionary.’ Our brain creates neural connections between the new word and others relevant to our interests. It develops new perceptions and concepts.” And Americans did in fact believe that a well-stocked vocabulary paid. It enhanced their chances for advancement in their careers. It enhanced their ability to move hearts and change minds. A skilled user of words might even become President of the United States.
Word power is no longer necessary to achieve high office. Today, the patois of a Pooterish fourth-grader is all it takes. Sad. But words still matter. The best reason to cultivate a rich vocabulary is not to gain professional success or impress other people. Words are, in the humble opinion of Albus Dumbledore, “our most inexhaustible source of magic.”