Brevity is not necessarily the Soul of Wit

dorsay with eiffel tower (Large)
Taken in Paris during a misty evening on the Seine. Is this simply “nice” or “pretty”? Can you think of 10 other words that might describe it more richly?

“It transpired one day that several personages of indeterminate age but of varying ethnic backgrounds (though all of the Celtic race) meandered into the local hostelry where they congregated about the ancient board from which a genial lacky proffered alcoholic beverages to the hoi polloi for a modest remuneration.”

or

An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman walk into a bar.

Why use one word when we have so many options in English?

It saddens me that so many young people have vocabularies unenriched by terms that add subtlety and colour to their conversation. Indeed, I suspect, as an educator of many years experience, that much of the frustration and anger that seems to be prevalent in society today, is caused by people not being able to express themselves in a detailed and concise way.

“I am angry!”…or are you in fact “bewildered”, “frustrated”, “perplexed”, “disenchanted”, “vexed” or simply momentarily discombobulated?

If all we can say about an emotion is that “I am mad, happy or sad” then how do we deal with complex feelings which don’t fit instantly into these categories? Sadly many don’t deal with complex feelings, because they can’t express how they feel, and often resort to more physical terms of expression.

“I am in love.” or “I am smitten.”

Who says “smitten” anymore? Yet, what a perfect word to express that rush of “love-like” affection without the accompanying implication of “lust”. Many young people are “smitten” with their peers (smitten coming from the Old English “to strike”) and this “love-struck” feeling is quite different from deep mature love. Yet how many young people are able to express this difference? Many smitten young people go through torments of misery because they mistake a rush of attraction for love, and act on it immediately. And, since “love” and “lust” appear synonymous in the modern teenage lexicon, they usually go too far, too soon, and get left bewildered when their “love” drops them like an old shoe after a ridiculously premature encounter. Follow that with the inveriable torrent of invective that floods the social networks, as inarticulate compatriots of the wronged hero/heroine attempt to show support by using the vernacular for the copulative act as often as possible in a single sentence, then you have a situation that is singularly unhelpful for all parties concerned.

Is something “dumb” or is it “facile”, “puerile”, “asinine”, “fatuous”?

Such excellent nuance in each term.

Is your argument based on a childish interpretation of the situation (puerile) or is it simply foolish? (fatuous). Is your reasoning without human sense (asinine) or is it merely a little shallow? (facile). Most things to teenagers remain without true expression and so are indeed completely “dumb” and nothing else.

Many young people find books written before the 1950s inaccessible due to their lack of understanding of vocabulary. What a tragedy that Jane Austen, who wrote with such excellent precision, is seen as “unreadable” by many due to her use of precise words to explain the subtlety of events, rather than use basic phrases which can never give the instant colour and nuance that a well chosen word can.

I personally find Jane Eyre florid and prolix but love the story. Many today would struggle to interpret it.

If you have young children, then finding ways to improve their vocabulary is something absolutely essential as a parent. You are basically helping them form their brains at their most plastic. Not so they can appreciate the beauty of “Persuasion” or bamboozle their less articulate friends in an argument, but because of something infinitely more valuable. You are giving them the ability to articulate their thoughts and identify and understand their feelings.

I remember there used to be books like “Improve Your Vocabulary in 30 days”. Perhaps there are similar things on APPs or other internet sites. It is never too late to learn and even if you garner just a small bouquet of new terms that help you to understand yourself and others more concisely then it is surely worth it. For many, sophisticated English is like learning another language. This is not a criticism, it is a challenge.

I am sure I would be far less articulate if I were to grow up in today’s world of instant entertainment, couched in the most basic English; never being even bored enough or unstimulated enough to reach for an old book on the shelf or to pore through a dictionary simply because it was there and I did not have Youtube or the million other distractions that the jeunesse doree of today are supersaturated with. I don’t see myself as superior because I might understand what “contrapuntal” means, but I would love others to experience the same joy you can find in having just the right words to say and not be lost for them.

If you know of any ways of improving vocabulary that would work with younger people via the internet then do share a link in the comments.

At the very least we all might become a little more likely to win Scrabble in the future.

Addendum: This is not supposed to be an “English-centric” post. The ideas apply to all languages. Learning to speak and write in the richest versions of any language is a recognised contributor to improved relationships, mental health, reduced violence and many other wonderful advantages.

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8 Comments

  1. Love this post! I try to use all manner of words to describe things in school and at home to enrich the vocabulary of those around me.
    You’re right that in this day, everything has been simplified…

    Like

  2. This is why I’m always so happy to learn new words, especially scientific terms. I think there’s something really magical that happens in the brain when a complex concept is suddenly reduced to being just a word. It makes it so much easier to explain that concept to others, and also to explain it to ourselves, and to make use of that concept to learn even bigger and more complicated things.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Interestingly, I do use words like “smitten” on a regular basis, and both of my kids were commended for their rich vocabularies during early childhood parent-teacher conferences. They learned because I talked (a lot!) and I have always used every interesting bit of my own vocabulary when speaking with children.

    The older is a more advanced reader, and the more voracious, but his extrovert younger brother still turns an elegant phrase, even without his brother’s breadth or depth of exposure to the great books.

    So my advice: either be or hire a moderately pretentious caregiver, like me! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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