Abstruse, Recondite Vocabulary

A look at language with three word geeks.

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Abstruse, Recondite Vocabulary
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Abstruse, Recondite Vocabulary

Most language experts agree that English has more words than almost any other language, although it's difficult to pin down how many words any particular language contains.

The Oxford English Dictionary has entries for roughly 600,000 words, but it also doesn't contain lots of commonly used words. So you could attempt to master English vocabulary and not have time to master anything else. 
Most of us would agree that a big vocabulary is more of a byproduct of an avid learning process. If you read a lot, you'll know a lot of words. If you're thrust into situations that require you to debate, you'll learn to use more words. 
But does a big vocabulary have any intrinsic value? That's one of the topics we'll debate on the show today as we explore the very notion of vocabulary.
You can join the conversation, e-mail colin@wnpr.org or Tweet us @wnprcolin.




I enjoyed the discussion about vocabulary.

To me, having an extensive vocabulary in English can be the doorway to new learning.

The first example I thought of was discussed on the show: "decimate". Knowing the roots of this word can lead to knowledge about: Roman history (brutal), scientific and mathematical prefixes and, even 12 Tone (dodecaphonic) music. It could be the word of the decade.

Understanding vocabulary can help us learn new languages. For example, the more English words we know that end in "-ion" or -"ive", the more cognates we know in French.

Even simple words like "wagon" and "carriage" can help us understand history (In this case by underscoring the class difference between the Saxon peasants and the Norman royalty).

As you mentioned, English is a hodgepodge of other languages. As a result, we have many word we consider synonyms. Maybe they are not really identical in meaning. I think that, when we use our English vocabulary descriptively, we discover that each "synonym" is subtly different from its mates and carries a slightly different load of emotional and cultural baggage.

In some languages, there are few synonyms and each word has a very specific meaning. The classic example (although it is said to be inaccurate) are the hundreds of word for "snow" used by the Eskimos.

Japanese is another example of a language that has very few synonyms, but many words that mean almost the same thing. In a way, I think that is true about English, as well. Maybe the value of having a large vocabulary is the ability to be very accurate about describing the things ideas and emotions around us (did I use "around" correctly?).

Here is a very funny and embarrassing (true) story about language:

One night, while sitting in a bar in Tokyo, I struck up a conversation with a very pleasant business man, who was more than glad to let me speak to him in Japanese. Although I knew my Japanese probably
sounded like some kind of Pidgin language, I was in my cups and continued to wax on. After a while, my manners caught up to me and I asked "Do you speak English?". His crushing answer was…
"Yes, but I have a very limited vocabulary."

E-mail from Andrea

I was disappointed in the inaccuracy of your guest's explanation of the Korean word "Oppa" today on your program. I moved to Korea in 2007 when I was 23 and taught English there for two years. After living there, I know these things to be true:

1. 'Oppa,' which does mean 'older brother,' also is a term of endearment that girls sometimes use when calling their boyfriends. It does not carry the 'big brother' governmental connotation that your guest assumed.

2. The song, 'Oppan Gangnam style,' is a phrase used to mean something like, "Person with Gangnam (pronounced Gah-nahm which is a upper class section of Seoul) style. I think singer is referring to himself because of the 'n' at the end, although the phrase is used in the third person. He is making fun of himself and/ or other people from that area.

I hope this can shed some light on your discussion and show that young(er) people do care about correct vocabulary.

Thanks for your continued programming on NPR.

E-mail from Steph

I believe the term originated in nyc. Way back when, the head guy for the railroad noticed everyone traveling into the city for work. He decided to commute a portion of the fare, hence the term commuters. I heard this on some other npr show - just want to give due credit.
Love the show.

E-mail from Bobo

Great show! When my eldest was in 5th grade one of his assignments was to create a family crest...one key item on the crest had to be a family motto...something that was said often in our home...he got an 'A' on his project and proudly displayed his crest to the family. In addition to the flags of Italy and Ireland was the the family motto "Look It Up."

E-mail from G.R.

I think the late father in law was not quite on target. I heard a similar discussion on WNPR a few days ago, and have been thinking abt it. It now occurs to me that the commutator on an AC electrivc motor (or I think on the DC generators that we've now replaced with alternators, now that we have efficient solid state rectifiers to convert the alternators' AC into DC). That discussion made it sound like the usage paralleled commutation (reduction) of a sentence.

7th Collegiate Dictionary makes me think that the common concept is not reduction but exchange: your sentence is commuted by giving you an alternate (and more lenient) sentence; electrical commutators interchange the connections of the circuit (when the motor or generator passes the point of 0 current or voltage, direction of flow reverses and what was positive becomes negative so that swapping the connections is timely). So i think commuting in the transportation is about going both ways.

E-mail from Jayne

I just had to write (tried to call) about the word show. When I was in school I read, absolutely devoured books. My three sons when reading a book for school now have to stop through out the book and answer a reader response work sheet. They began to dread reading books and I don't think William Golding meant for Lord of the Flies to be started and stopped with a ridiculous task. Teachers teaching to the test have to do this is it is the kiss of death to reading and there fore vocabulary.

E-mail from Karen

My elderly father-in-law was always amused that people said they were "commuters"
The word came from the early days of taking a train from the suburbs to the city (New York).
Those who bought weekly tickets were able to get a "commute" or discount on the price.
The word expanded into being a "commuter" or taking a "commuter train"

E-mail from Chris

sesquipedalian-tergiversation - beating around the bush using long words