If you are an English speaker, then you have available to you a usable vocabulary that is significantly larger than that of other languages. It is estimated that English has maybe 1 million words, which could be nearly five times that of French. Furthermore, it is thought that a new word is added every two hours or so. But how many of all these do we use?
Of course my readers are intelligent, sophisticated people, so maybe you and I will use some 50,000 words, and understand at least as many again. But it is also thought that some may have a vocabulary of fewer than 10,000 words. In one piece of field work that was presented to me about eight years ago, it was estimated that many people’s average active vocabulary – the number of words he or she would use on a regular basis – may be as low as 1,500.
There is also some evidence that the English language’s capacity for the active use of synonyms, whereby a variety of words is regularly used with the same or a similar meaning, is being eroded. A distinguished person is probably now rarely described as eximious, and Peter Pan’s Captain Hook is probably not often called hamose, nor would be be described as an hallion. But that means we are depriving the language, and ourselves, of some wonderful opportunities. An illustration of this was provided by the American linguist Richard Lederer in his introduction to the Highly Selective Dictionary for the Extraordinarily Literate:
‘One of the happiest features of possessing a capacious vocabulary is the opportunity to insult your enemies with impunity. While the maddening crowd gets mad with exhausted epithets such as ‘You rotten pig’ and ‘You dirty bum,’ you can acerbate, deprecate, derogate, and excoriate your nemesis with a battalion of laser-precise pejoratives. You can brand him or her a grandiloquent popinjay, venal pettifogger, nefarious miscreant, flagitious recidivist, sententious blatherskite, mawkish ditherer, arrant peculator, irascible misanthrope, hubristic narcissist, feckless sycophant, vituperative virago, vapid yahoo, eructative panjandrum, saturnine misanthrope, antediluvian troglodyte, maudlin poetaster, splenetic termagant, pernicious quidnunc, rancorous anchorite, perfidious mountebank, or irascible curmudgeon.’
So are we now reduced to a small selection of often four-letter dressed expletives? And is everything desirable just, well, ‘nice’?
If all this is so, what are the causes? What can be done to maintain English as a peculiarly rich language with a subtle and varied vocabulary? In particular, how can we harness the many opportunities now afforded by information technology to ensure that it is a platform for verbal sophistication? This is a cause worth fighting for.