About Those $5.00 Words

More than once in the past, I’ve been accused of using a dictionary or thesaurus to find $5.00 words that will impress the natives. I’ve also been accused of using $5.00 words solely to show off my vocabulary. Either way, words of more than two syllables, and even some with only two syllables seem to be a growing problem, even for people with a college education.

Today’s little rant at Gin and Tacos, Can’t Find the Words to Say, isn’t the first to bemoan the steady decline in literacy, and it won’t be the last. And while the post itself was a good read, it was one of the comments that really caught my eye.

“Could this be just part of a long-term trend? I mean you read stuff from the 19th century, or even the early 20th century, and it seems like everyone is trying to show off their vocabulary in every sentence. I can *understand* it, sure, but it takes concerted effort.
The style today is all about minimalism- plain speaking in simple words. Maybe that’s part of why Trump is doing so well- they say he speaks at the lowest grade level of any of the candidates. Everyone else is just too darn fancy-talkin.”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or groan. It deserved both. It’s common to read accusations of “showing off” in reference to contemporary writers. Using it against 19th and early 20th century writers is simply a confession of profound ignorance. Because, of course, what’s true today must always have been true. Showing off your vocabulary apparently has a long history. But we can’t expect people who can barely struggle their way through a book (if they can even be bothered) to be aware that even the average person once had a much larger vocabulary than is in general use today.

The commenter managed to impress me twice as an example of modern illiteracy, adding his “concerted effort” for a nice touch. Several of the other comments mentioned students who use words without knowing their meanings, and he kindly offered his example.

There were several mentions of the recent finding that Trump speaks at a fifth grade level, and our friend obviously approved because “Everyone else is just too darn fancy-talkin.” Or maybe he’s just funnin’, having a joke at our expense.

Note: I know someone will argue with me about the use of concerted. Yes, it can refer to an effort by one person, but most usually, it doesn’t. In this case, it doesn’t seem appropriate.

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2 thoughts on “About Those $5.00 Words

  1. The audience of those intended older books were people of leisure who had time to read and money for books. Educated people in those days would have read the classics. Their vocabularies were the same as that of the writers.

    It is a sad fact of modern education that more people get it, and it is watered down. Part is that there is so much to learn, another that teacher scores depend on their pupils’ test grades. I am unhappy that the SATs, for example, no longer have the proper vocabulary as a way to distinguish those who have read widely and well from others who have not made the effort. And practicing for the test was the one last chance for many kids to learn the words. You can be assured that the elite prep schools have them covered. And that people who hire for top jobs still know the difference, and prefer their managers literate.

    (Can we say this here? This is America!)

    A not small part of the older novels was also setting scenes – something TV and movies do faster now. I read all that happily back when I was younger, without even noticing it was lengthy. I notice now. The world has changed, and it’s not going back to several-page descriptions of the moors.

    ‘Concerted’ is fine – I didn’t even notice until you mentioned it.

  2. My very old Macquarie Little dictionary that my son gave me as a birthday present way back back in 1985 defines ‘concerted’ as ‘done by agreement’. But hey, the English language is a living thing, so you might be right these days. Anyway, it’s a small thing. The general dumbling-down of the population as they hasten to fit more info/entertainment into their daily lives is another matter altogether, and very unfortunate, I think. I like your style. Don’t change a thing.

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