Boys flying kites haul in their white winged birds;
You can’t do that way when you’re flying words.
“Careful with fire,” is good advice we know,
“Careful with words,” is ten times doubly so.
Thoughts unexpressed many sometimes fall back dead;
But God Himself can’t kill them when they’re said.
—Will Carleton, The First Settler’s Story.
The term “vocabulary” has a special as well as a general meaning. True, all vocabularies are grounded in the everyday words of the language, out of which grow the special vocabularies, but each such specialized group possesses a number of words of peculiar value for its own objects. These words may be used in other vocabularies also, but the fact that they are suited to a unique order of expression marks them as of special value to a particular craft or calling.
In this respect the public speaker differs not at all from the poet, the novelist, the scientist, the traveler. He must add to his everyday stock, words of value for the public presentation of thought.
A study of the discourses of effective orators discloses the fact that they have a fondness for words signifying power, largeness, speed, action, color, light, and all their opposites. They frequently employ words expressive of the various emotions. Descriptive words, adjectives used in fresh relations with nouns, and apt epithets, are freely employed. Indeed, the nature of public speech permits the use of mildly exaggerated words which, by the time they have reached the hearer’s judgment, will leave only a just impression.
Form the Book-Note Habit
To possess a word involves three things: To know its special and broader meanings, to know its relation to other words, and to be able to use it. When you see or hear a familiar word used in an unfamiliar sense, jot it down, look it up, and master it.
Use a new word accurately five times and it is yours. Professor Albert E. Hancock says: “An author’s vocabulary is of two kinds, latent and dynamic: latent—those words he understands; dynamic—those he can readily use. Every intelligent man knows all the words he needs, but he may not have them all ready for active service. The problem of literary diction consists in turning the latent into the dynamic.”
Your dynamic vocabulary is the one you must especially cultivate.
Form the Reference-Book Habit
Do not be content with your general knowledge of a word—press your study until you have mastered its individual shades of meaning and usage. Mere fluency is sure to become despicable, but accuracy never. The dictionary contains the crystallized usage of intellectual giants. No one who would write effectively dare despise its definitions and discriminations. Think, for example, of the different meanings of mantle, or model, or quantity. Any late edition of an unabridged dictionary is good, and is worth making sacrifices to own.
Word derivations are rich in suggestiveness. Our English owes so much to foreign tongues and has changed so much with the centuries that whole addresses may grow out of a single root-idea hidden away in an ancient word-origin. Translation, also, is excellent exercise in word-mastery and consorts well with the study of derivations.
Search Faithfully for the Right Word
Books of reference are tripled in value when their owner has a passion for getting the kernels out of their shells. Ten minutes a day will do wonders for the nut-cracker. “I am growing so peevish about my writing,” says Flaubert. “I am like a man whose ear is true, but who plays falsely on the violin: his fingers refuse to reproduce precisely those sounds of which he has the inward sense. Then the tears come rolling down from the poor scraper’s eyes and the bow falls from his hand.”
The same brilliant Frenchman sent this sound advice to his pupil, Guy de Maupassant: “Whatever may be the thing which one wishes to say, there is but one word for expressing it, only one verb to animate it, only one adjective to qualify it. It is essential to search for this word, for this verb, for this adjective, until they are discovered, and to be satisfied with nothing else.”
Here is an exercise to help you grow your vocabulary:
Find as many synonyms and antonyms as possible for each of the following words: Excess, Rare, Severe, Beautiful, Clear, Happy, Difference, Care, Skillful, Involve, Enmity, Profit, Absurd, Evident, Faint, Friendly, Harmony, Hatred, Honest, Inherent.
Subscribe to “Wordsmith” and get a word each day.
Don’t be “pugnacious”