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Silver Surfer Articles
28. The Language we Use

Just recently I have been challenged to think about language. This is not so much about accent as the words that are used – and in passing I think accent needs to be distinguished from sloppy speech, which used to be the prerogative of what sociologists used to call lower class, but which often appears today on TV in those who are now the new affluent who have come from what was once low-income society. Sorry, that was a diversion but it does actually say something about ways of thinking – or not.

I have commented, in other articles on exercising the mind, how I daily do Su Doku and a crossword if possible, purely for mind exercise. While I do this over breakfast after scanning the papers, my wife ties herself in knots doing a thing called ‘Polygon’ which tends to be six or seven letters around a central letter and requires you to make words of four or more letters (sometimes three) but always using the central letter.
Now my mother-in-law used to do the Telegraph crossword which was about as cryptic as you can possibly get, and so on occasion, leaning over her shoulder, I questioned how she possibly arrived at the answers (which were invariably right) with such bizarre and impossible clues. This ‘Polygon’ exercise takes us into the same realms, I conclude.

As a past professional-cum-teacher-cum-writer/speaker I’ve always been told that I’m part of society that has higher than average vocabulary knowledge – and my wife also. Well, now, how are the mighty fallen!  Each day the Polygon tells you how many words indicate you are average, good, very good or excellent. My wife totters off to work muttering, “And I’m not even average!” Not a good start to the day.  Such was her gloom and doom over a number of days, that I decided to show interest and we looked at some of the words given in the answers on the following days.  So let’s see how good YOU are.  How many of these have you come across – I’ll give you the answers at the end (some of the words we did know but we’ll reveal our ignorance with the following):

arum, caul, clou, cru, culm, cur, lour, lum, luma, lur, morula, mucro, rucola

There are those who say that vocabulary is increased with reading, and I suspect that that is true. But reading what, I wonder. One of our son’s, until early teen years would read nothing except Asterix the Gaul cartoon books, fun stuff in themselves but not good for building vocabulary, I guess. How does he end up being a city lawyer who thrashes the rest of us any time we attempt word games at Christmas? Must have been a late developer thing!

When I used to teach, I was always told, use language appropriate to the age of your students, but what is ‘appropriate’? As the example above indicates, every person is different. So why pander with simple words? Why not challenge with more difficult words that challenge the student to ask and to extend their vocabulary. Why, you may ask, increase your vocabulary anyway? Good question, and one I’ve always taken for granted. Being a bit lazy, I Googled it. Here are three answers:

1. To sharpen your communication – it enables you to be able to choose words with greater precision and you come to understand the ones you know more fully, and that often enables you to communicate more simply. I like it!

2. To enlarge your mind – it enables you to challenge the meanings of words being used by politicians, media etc who are ‘spinning’ a viewpoint and enables you to expand your thinking and reasoning and understanding of other viewpoints.

3. To bring you success – tests and research so often show that a person’s vocabulary level is the best single predictor of occupational success. Wow, parents, that’s a bit of a challenge isn’t it!  They also suggest that professional success frequently depends on communication and vocabulary skills. Wow!

So the obvious follow-on was to look up how to improve your vocabulary. Here are the basic results:

1. Read a lot
2. Often use a dictionary
3. Understand the true meaning of words
4. Play word games
5. Diversify your reading – read different stuff from usual.

So, OK,  what about that list of words from one day’s Polygon:

Arum – the cuckoo-pint genus (not too much use for than in my conversation!)
Caul – a net or covering for the head
Clou – chief point of interest, dominant idea
Cru – a vineyard or group of vineyards
Culm – coal dust
Cur – low breed of dog (OK, I got that one!)
Lour- (or lower) – to look sullen or scowl
Lum – a chimney or chimney pot
Luma – a coin of Armenia
Lur – long, curved Bronze Age trumpet
Morula – a solid spherical mass of cells resulting from cleavage of an ovum
Mucro – a short, stiff, sharp point forming an abrupt end
Rucola -  a Dutch word meaning rocket

Well,  two of those – Luma and Rucola – didn’t appear in any of my three reasonably decent dictionaries, probably because of foreign origin. Conclusion? There are a lot of words that could be taken out of the dictionary that, I suspect, 99.99999% of us never use!

I hope that lot didn’t drive you too mad; there are people out there who thrive on this sort of thing. If you’re one of them, good on you. If you’re not, then us more ignorant people have got to stick together!

One or two others from another day’s Polygon to annoy or excite you – anent, bento, nekton, nonet, oaten, okta, toea, toke. Have fun!