Decline of Vocabulary; Good or Bad?

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gitgeezer
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Re: Decline of Vocabulary; Good or Bad?

Post by gitgeezer » Tue Jan 02, 2018 5:05 pm

I know that many new words are added to the English language each year and, I suppose, make it richer in a sense. But as I peruse these new words, I ask myself how useful they are in expanding our discussion and understanding of human existence, which is what literature is all about. How useful are they in examining and dealing with the many aspects of human existence, such as sensation, comprehension, intellect, thoughts, ideas, reasoning, judgment, theorizing, detecting truth, imagining, predicting, reflecting, learning, moralizing, and empathizing? How useful will they be in successfully working within the formal divisions of education, politics, law, justice, and governing? Will they come to our aid in expressing feelings, desires, hopes, excitement, pleasure, discontent, sadness, regret, humor, aggravation, anxiety, fear, etc?

Let's take a look at some of the new words recently added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Many are culinary, as new dishes are assimilated from other cultures. Thus, we get sriracha, Saigon cinnamon, bibimbap, choux pastry, and froyo. Many are a gift of the internet, such as mallware, trollware, and ransomware. Business is always good for some new words, such as onboarding. Sports is particularly generous with new words as imported sports grow in popularity and old sports undergo rule changes. The field of medicine coughs up many new words to describe new devices and procedures and even new diseases. And there is no end to new technical words from other fields.

But, Rasputin, we must also consider the loss of old words that were useful and sometimes irreplaceable. For example, "disinterested" has now become just a cooler way of saying "uninterested." Thus the true meaning of disinterested—having no personal stake ("interest") in a matter—is now nearly lost. While we want judges to be "disinterested" we certainly don't want them to be "uninterested." In the same way, "enormity" is now just a cooler way of saying "enormousness," and "fortuitous" is now just a substitute for "fortunate." "Literally" is now misused far more often than it is used correctly. It's becoming just a cool way of adding emphasis to a statement. And "transpired," which once had the useful meaning of "became known," is now just a fancy way of saying "happened" or "occurred."

The use of broad, imprecise words seem to be growing. Thus the vague "enhance" is not only cool, but it relieves the speaker or writer of having to think of a more precise word, such as improve, increase, strengthen, advance, nurture, elevate, embellish, beautify, refine, etc. Others are "stuff," "loads of," "totally," and "awesome."

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prawnheed
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Re: Decline of Vocabulary; Good or Bad?

Post by prawnheed » Tue Jan 02, 2018 5:23 pm


ddray
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Re: Decline of Vocabulary; Good or Bad?

Post by ddray » Tue Jan 02, 2018 5:44 pm

gitgeezer wrote:
Tue Jan 02, 2018 5:05 pm

The use of broad, imprecise words seem to be growing. Thus the vague "enhance" is not only cool, but it relieves the speaker or writer of having to think of a more precise word, such as improve, increase, strengthen, advance, nurture, elevate, embellish, beautify, refine, etc. Others are "stuff," "loads of," "totally," and "awesome."
That's really a reliance on cant and hackneyed expressions to which we Americans seem to be especially prone, and others in the "Anglosphere" seem to have caught the bug too. "Literally" and "awesome" are literally worn out. Another thing is misuse of a word for ideological purposes, such as "genocide" and "fascist". After a while the words lose meaning.

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Re: Decline of Vocabulary; Good or Bad?

Post by gitgeezer » Tue Jan 02, 2018 7:22 pm

When noticing the large vocabularies of classical works, have you wondered just how large those vocabularies are? Project Gutenberg and word analyst Zachary Booth Simpson have the answer. Like to guess which work has the largest vocabulary (not the most total words, but the most different words)? I guessed wrong—wasn't even close. Here's the top 20, followed by vocabulary size and, in parentheses, total word count:

Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon—43,113 (1,543,6760
Roget's Thesaurus—39,023 (203,886)
Gargantua and Pantagruel, Rabelais—25,985 (323,886)
Les Miserables, Hugo—23,334 (570,508)
Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine, Gould-Pyle—b]22,930[/b] (393,856)
Brann The Iconoclast, vol 1, 10, 12, Cowper—22,507 (300,783)
Plutarch's Lives—20,237 (742,013)
History of the Conquest of Peru, Prescott—19,235 (300,976)
Warfare of Science and Theology—19,187 (322,799)
Bible (Douay-Rheims version)—18,559 (1,029,084)
Moby Dick, Melville—17,227 (211,763)
Cloister and the Hearth, Reade—16,911 (282,120)
Sketches by Boz, Dickens—16,414 (262,440)
Vanity Fair, Thackeray—16,349 (360,049)
Our Mutual Friend, Dickens—16,337 (338,266)
Dombey and Son, Dickens—16,332 (366,517)
Pickwick Papers, Dickens—16,253 (313,143)
Don Quixote, Cervantes—16,160 (425,814)
Count of Monte Cristo, Dumas—16,110 (464,256)
Terminal Compromise, Schartau (net novel)—15,898 (213,672)

Anyone guess the Decline and Fall? And how about its vocabulary being larger than that of Roget's Thesaurus? My Fourth Edition of the Thesaurus says "it has a text of about 250,000 words and phrases," but it doesn't say how many of those are repeats. Dickens, with four entries, is the only author of more than one work, and it's interesting that the vocabularies in those four works cover such a narrow range, from 16,253 in the Pickwick Papers to 16,414 in Sketches by Boz.

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Denian Arcoleo
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Re: Decline of Vocabulary; Good or Bad?

Post by Denian Arcoleo » Tue Jan 02, 2018 8:05 pm

Philosopherguy wrote:
Tue Jan 02, 2018 4:11 am
Literacy levels are at their highest they have ever been in the west
There is strong evidence that literacy in 19thC North America was far greater than it is now, having seen a steady decline throughout the 20thC.

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Re: Decline of Vocabulary; Good or Bad?

Post by Rasputin » Tue Jan 02, 2018 8:07 pm

gitgeezer wrote:
Tue Jan 02, 2018 5:05 pm
I know that many new words are added to the English language each year and, I suppose, make it richer in a sense. But as I peruse these new words, I ask myself how useful they are in expanding our discussion and understanding of human existence, which is what literature is all about. How useful are they in examining and dealing with the many aspects of human existence, such as sensation, comprehension, intellect, thoughts, ideas, reasoning, judgment, theorizing, detecting truth, imagining, predicting, reflecting, learning, moralizing, and empathizing? How useful will they be in successfully working within the formal divisions of education, politics, law, justice, and governing? Will they come to our aid in expressing feelings, desires, hopes, excitement, pleasure, discontent, sadness, regret, humor, aggravation, anxiety, fear, etc?
The OED list would suggest there is every chance.
But, Rasputin, we must also consider the loss of old words that were useful and sometimes irreplaceable. For example, "disinterested" has now become just a cooler way of saying "uninterested." Thus the true meaning of disinterested—having no personal stake ("interest") in a matter—is now nearly lost.
That's an instructive one because the oldest examples show that it originally meant 'uninterested' but came to mean 'having no personal stake in the matter' and is now (it seems) on its way back. This and, if memory serves, some of your other examples, have been debunked by Steven Pinker. The history of 'disinterested' shows that meaning change is not always from more specific to less. Just as it doesn't follow from the fact that some words have fallen into desuetude that modern vocabularies are smaller, it doesn't follow from the fact that some words which once had specific meanings have become synonymous with others we had all along - which I also find annoying, BTW - means that the overall trend is in that direction. Other words are quietly differentiating themselves from their current synonyms, but that is less noticeable. We presumably owe the word 'very' (which must once have been 'verily', meaning truly') to a process more or less opposite to what is happening with 'literally', so again there are two sides to the coin.

It's never possible to talk about the true meaning of a word as though that was something fixed. You can look at earlier and later usage but meaning will always depend on usage, and trying to tie it to some perceived golden age is just tying it to the usage of people who are now dead. I think it's a good thing that language changes and am prepared to accept some changes I dislike along the way.

It would be interesting to make a wordlist based on a few pages from some modern novels and compare it to the ones you have posted from older works. The stats are interesting as far as they go, though. I see that Twain doesn't make the top 20 and that most of the novels in there are not actually all that old.

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Re: Decline of Vocabulary; Good or Bad?

Post by Rasputin » Tue Jan 02, 2018 8:14 pm

Rasputin wrote:
Tue Jan 02, 2018 8:07 pm
We presumably owe the word 'very' (which must once have been 'verily', meaning truly') to a process more or less opposite to what is happening with 'literally', so again there are two sides to the coin.
Or rather, to the same process but here working towards diversification if we judge from today's dictionary.

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Re: Decline of Vocabulary; Good or Bad?

Post by ddray » Tue Jan 02, 2018 8:30 pm

Rasputin wrote:
Tue Jan 02, 2018 8:07 pm
Other words are quietly differentiating themselves from their current synonyms, but that is less noticeable. We presumably owe the word 'very' (which must once have been 'verily', meaning truly') to a process more or less opposite to what is happening with 'literally', so again there are two sides to the coin.
The meaning is still essentially the same though. "Verily" is simply taking the stem of Latin "verus" ("truth") and adding the Germanic -ly. If we say something is "very big" we mean "TRULY big". The meaning of "disinterested" still has the consensus connotation of "impartial" or "neutral". Language does change, of course, and it doesn't really matter if it's "dis" or "un" ultimately, but unless there's some kind of consensus there'll be confusion.

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Re: Decline of Vocabulary; Good or Bad?

Post by Andrew Pohlman » Tue Jan 02, 2018 9:40 pm

ddray wrote:
Tue Jan 02, 2018 9:18 am
Rasputin wrote:
Tue Jan 02, 2018 8:27 am
I disagree - informal communications call for a different kind of language, and using the right vocabulary for the situation does not equate to a lower quality of word selection, nor does it show a decline in linguistic competence. Quite the opposite, I would say - someone who uses formal language in an informal situation is showing that they are oblivious to register, and thus that they lack one of the mst basic linguistic skills.
But the OP's concern obviously is with those who have *only* those "informal" arrows in their lexical quivers. In other words, those who have *only* the most basic linguistic skills.

But there are of course writers of the present day who can wax just eloquent (and prolix) as anyone in the 18th century. It's just that the "eloquent style" with its vocabulary has changed somewhat. However in the 18th century I don't think there were any influential Hemingway types offering a stripped-down style as an eloquence of another type.
In my profession as a Registered Nurse, my colleagues and I are constantly adjusting our level of vocabulary to match our current patient. The conversation will go very differently if I am talking with a college graduate compared to a homeless schizophrenic with a 6th grade education.

I think Rasputin refers to what we call "code switching" - typically, one language when with friends, another more formal when at church. However, I just read a study that highlights that lack of vocabulary among today's youth. Okay. But then, my vocabulary was not really well built until I wrote several college level papers. Having said that, I use words in Spanish that most of my Hispanic patients do not know - due to their education levels. Some are illiterate in their native language.

I feel strongly that vocabulary comes with education. No education - poor vocabulary ... good education, usually good vocabulary. The real question in my mind is whether or not there is a diminishing need to use an excellent vocabulary? Can you say "texting"? Of course you can!
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Re: Decline of Vocabulary; Good or Bad?

Post by Evocacion » Wed Jan 03, 2018 12:58 am

edcat7 wrote:
Tue Jan 02, 2018 10:12 am
I'm an avid reader (mainly of serious books and classics) but my spelling is only so-so and likewise my vocabulary is fairly limited. When I was a child I was told to have a dictionary nearby so when I didn't understand a word I could look it up. Now I tend to bypass those words or try to work it out from the context. I'm also lousy at cross word puzzles, what am I doing wrong?
Perhaps you are reading paper books, rather than ebooks. Most of the classics are out of copyright, and so are freely available on Project Gutenburg in several different formats - EPUB, KIndle etc.
The advantage of using an ebook reader is that it comes with a dictionary, so words can be looked up in seconds. On my reader, for example, I click on the menu, choose Actions, then choose Dictionary, then tap on the word I want to look up. Much easier than taking the dictionary down from it's shelf and leafing through.

Can't help you with crossword puzzles though. I prefer Sudoku.

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Re: Decline of Vocabulary; Good or Bad?

Post by David Gutowski » Wed Jan 03, 2018 6:17 am

Evocacion wrote:
Wed Jan 03, 2018 12:58 am
edcat7 wrote:
Tue Jan 02, 2018 10:12 am
I'm an avid reader (mainly of serious books and classics) but my spelling is only so-so and likewise my vocabulary is fairly limited. When I was a child I was told to have a dictionary nearby so when I didn't understand a word I could look it up. Now I tend to bypass those words or try to work it out from the context. I'm also lousy at cross word puzzles, what am I doing wrong?
Perhaps you are reading paper books, rather than ebooks. Most of the classics are out of copyright, and so are freely available on Project Gutenburg in several different formats - EPUB, KIndle etc.
The advantage of using an ebook reader is that it comes with a dictionary, so words can be looked up in seconds. On my reader, for example, I click on the menu, choose Actions, then choose Dictionary, then tap on the word I want to look up. Much easier than taking the dictionary down from it's shelf and leafing through.

Can't help you with crossword puzzles though. I prefer Sudoku.
With my new Kindle e-reader, all you have to do is underline the word with the control button and press and it gives the definition... very easy and convenient.
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Re: Decline of Vocabulary; Good or Bad?

Post by petermc61 » Wed Jan 03, 2018 7:13 am

Denian Arcoleo wrote:
Tue Jan 02, 2018 8:05 pm
Philosopherguy wrote:
Tue Jan 02, 2018 4:11 am
Literacy levels are at their highest they have ever been in the west
There is strong evidence that literacy in 19thC North America was far greater than it is now, having seen a steady decline throughout the 20thC.
Denian

Curious to know the nature or source of that evidence. Your comment did rather surprise me.

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Re: Decline of Vocabulary; Good or Bad?

Post by edcat7 » Wed Jan 03, 2018 10:22 am

Evocacion wrote:
Wed Jan 03, 2018 12:58 am
edcat7 wrote:
Tue Jan 02, 2018 10:12 am
I'm an avid reader (mainly of serious books and classics) but my spelling is only so-so and likewise my vocabulary is fairly limited. When I was a child I was told to have a dictionary nearby so when I didn't understand a word I could look it up. Now I tend to bypass those words or try to work it out from the context. I'm also lousy at cross word puzzles, what am I doing wrong?
Perhaps you are reading paper books, rather than ebooks. Most of the classics are out of copyright, and so are freely available on Project Gutenburg in several different formats - EPUB, KIndle etc.
The advantage of using an ebook reader is that it comes with a dictionary, so words can be looked up in seconds. On my reader, for example, I click on the menu, choose Actions, then choose Dictionary, then tap on the word I want to look up. Much easier than taking the dictionary down from it's shelf and leafing through.

Can't help you with crossword puzzles though. I prefer Sudoku.
I'm sure getting an e-book is the way to go, especially when I work in Greece and carry a ton of books. I'm a technophobe and have just ordered my first smart phone (new but obsolete) off the bay. My pet hate is people who are addicted to their mobiles and are glued to them. This is especially noticeable on the train. I much prefer reading a battered paper book. I might buy a small dictionary.
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Re: Decline of Vocabulary; Good or Bad?

Post by ddray » Wed Jan 03, 2018 11:30 am

edcat7 wrote:
Wed Jan 03, 2018 10:22 am
My pet hate is people who are addicted to their mobiles and are glued to them. This is especially noticeable on the train. ...
No offense, but I don't know why you would hate that any more than someone having his/her nose planted in an "actual" book or newspaper. I'm certainly addicted to my phone, lol...

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Re: Decline of Vocabulary; Good or Bad?

Post by Andrew Fryer » Wed Jan 03, 2018 12:22 pm

gitgeezer wrote:
Tue Jan 02, 2018 3:19 am
stuff
It's not about the vocab, it's about what you do with it.
Also, you are simplifying and misrepresenting the development of English. Have you read Hemingway - in particular, the Old Man and the Sea? In For Whom the Bell Tolls are you sure the "F-Bomb" wouldn't be rather better than his censorship-inflicted M-bombs? Do you prefer such stuff as Anthony Burgess's Earthly Powers? Does it make any sense to compare Augustan English with txt msging? Why not compare Augustan English with telegram English?
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