Where did our vocabulary go?

What’s happened to our vocabulary? It took some comic books from the 1960s and 1970s and a Nancy Drew novel from that era to hammer home the point that in four decades we seem to have lost a huge chunk of the English language.

My daughter was home sick. Typically, she’d turn on the television and enter the monosyllabic land of children’s programming, but this day I handed her a Nancy Drew novel. As she read she started asking me questions about the words she was reading (this is a first – she typically knows every word on the page and then some in the books that she reads).

“Mommy, what is ‘a trifle dubious’?

Suddenly, I became a trifle dubious about the choice of reading material I had handed her. Was I going to be peppered with questions that I may not be able to answer? I was up for the challenge, and pleased that we were talking about words.

“Trifle is a delicious dessert with custard, fruit, and cake, but it also means “a little bit,” I answered. “Dubious, mean something you are unsure about.” I asked her if she could use them in a sentence.

“I’m a trifle dubious about going outside alone in case there are bears.”

“Well done,” I congratulated her outwardly while inwardly I exhaled a sigh of relief that I had passed round one without a dictionary.

I took a telephone call, but I saw her writing down a long list. When I was off the telephone, the floodgates opened:

“Mommy, how about: I’m faint from hunger; scarcely; chagrined; queries; confided; isolated; inconspicuous; fiends; marauder; cold perspiration, unthinkable, memento.”

I explained each one to the best of my abilities, and then ‘confided in her that I was scarcely chagrined by her queries, and that they had not left me in a cold perspiration.’ As lunch was approaching I also asked if she felt faint with hunger and I stated that I felt that our talking about new words would not be an isolated incident if she kept reading these books. For fiends and marauder I told her those were other words for bad guys, with the latter usually describing thieves. (Good enough I think).

For inconspicuous, I mentioned the concept of not standing-out.

“Like a hunter wearing camouflage, mommy?”

“Yes, honey.”

“Why would they say unthinkable instead of unbelievable, mommy?”

“Why not? It’s a synonym and it’s nice to have different ways to say the same thing depending on the context,” I replied. “It might be a trifle boring if everyone only said souvenir instead of keepsake, memento, or token, don’t you think?”

She was really getting this. Now the problem would be if she started using these words with her friends and many adults as well, because her new found vocabulary for this one chapter of this one book would only be the beginning, and it would be very conspicuous indeed.

If you’re wondering if Nancy Drew’s author was a pompous exception to the literary world at that time, you only need to open any number of books from that era to find out that that is not the case. Even comic books from the sixties and seventies that I rescued from a garage sale were full of “million dollar” words (as my daughter’s teacher calls them).

In one Star Trek comic, within the first two pages, the following words appeared: undesirables, doom, powerless, exploration, mysterious, terrifying, fringe, uncharted, mammoth, turbulence, disturbance, and one sentence of note; ‘any unexplainable phenomenon demands investigation.’

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. comic was no different in terms of a rich vocabulary, in fact it was titled; “The Pixilated Puzzle Affair.”

On the first page of The Swiss Family Robinson comic from 1960’s was written: “There is a sudden, splintering crash! The ship lurches to one side, shudders violently, and comes to a creaking, shaking stop.”

While researchers debate the number of words in Shakespeare’s vocabulary, what is not questioned is that the average person has one tenth to a third of that vocabulary. Some estimates are that his vocabulary was around 29,000 and others say 60,000 words. The average person’s vocabulary is stated to be closer to 4,000 words. Given that most of the youth I hear talking lately sound like a bad episode of Scooby-Doo; as each sentence has the word “like” at least twice, I question even that final figure as being on the high side.

The more we allow our children to communicate in choppy text messages and watch television shows where vocabularies are as stunted as the characters’ acting skills we can expect the average vocabulary to continue to decline.

Here’s to encouraging more challenging reading for our youth, even if it means reaching back to our bookcases from when we were children.

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