Trying to convince speakers of English that they need to expand their vocabularies is one of the oldest strategies for selling word books. The very first English dictionary, A Table Alphabeticall, published in 1604, stated on its title page that its approximately 2,500 words (most of them relatively obscure) were intended for the “benefit and help of ladies, gentlewomen or any other unskillful persons.” For the next 100 years, most published dictionaries were concerned with helping the verbally unsophisticated (or at least the insecure) feel more comfortable with their verbal repertories. These early dictionaries were filled only with “hard” words and did not bother with defining cow or apple, reasoning that everyone knew what words like that meant. Instead they sought to explain to the uninitiated the meaning of terms like desticate (to cry like a rat) and antipelargy (the reciprocal love children have for their parents).
In the years since, we English speakers have become only more concerned with the size and quality of our own personal word hoards. We seem to be under the impression that a small vocabulary is one of those things, like bad teeth or poor manners, that can hold us back in life. There are thousands of books and Web sites, many of them quite commercially successful, that promise to help redress the problem. The cover of the audio book “Wordmaster” exhorts you to “Improve your word power and improve your life!” The Web site cinemaboxhd.org avers that its method will earn you greater respect in life and allow you to make more money after using it for just a week. Others make promises of a more modest nature, like the cautious claim in the book “The Words You Should Know to Sound Smart” that it is “possible” that learning its words “may even put some money in your pocket.” Claims by some services are simply baffling, like those emblazoned on the cover of “The Yo Momma Vocabulary Builder” (sample entry: “Yo momma’s so peripatetic, she went out for a walk and never came back”), which assures readers that it will assist not only in verbal combat and achieving higher test scores — but also in losing weight.
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Watch more: IELTS Vocabulary & Grammar
Study after study over the past hundred years has tied vocabulary size to higher socioeconomic status, greater educational achievement and a host of other goods. Of all the benefits, real or imaginary, of a robust vocabulary, perhaps the most appealing is that vocabulary is heritable — that you can pass it along to your children like an acquired trait in Lamarckian evolution. The Educational Testing Service, which has been concerned with improving vocabularies since 1947, issued a report in 2009, “Parsing the Achievement Gap II,” which explained some of the benefits of an extensive vocabulary. Among the more notable benefits it cited was that children who are raised in higher socioeconomic brackets tend to have vocabularies that are remarkably larger than those who are raised in poorer ones. By the age of 3, children who are raised in a professional household know twice as many words as do children raised on welfare.
Yet before you set aside that copy of “Goodnight Moon” in favor of reading to your progeny from Merriam-Webster in the evening, consider that it is not simply the number of words but also how they are used that is important. Most famous quotations, for instance, are not full of polysyllabic Latinisms. Brandishing 25-cent words unnecessarily will mark you as a blowhard, not an effective communicator. Winston Churchill’s oft-repeated statement about how he had nothing to offer but “blood, toil, tears and sweat” would have elicited nothing but puzzlement had he replaced that quartet of short nouns with the synonyms vermeil, moiling, delacrimation and sudorification.
Watch more: IELTS Academic word list (online and pdf)