I think that I have a good to excellent vocabulary; I read a lot, I write a bit, I had a good education and I tend not to need a dictionary – I don’t believe that I actually have a paper dictionary here in the house. When, on the rare occasions, I do come across an unfamiliar word – one that I might be hard pressed to give an accurate dictionary-style definition – it doesn’t matter because I can understand the general meaning from the context. For the vast majority of books and articles that I read, I would say I have a total understanding of every word used in my own native language.
So, imagine my chagrin when I recently reread a novel I had read some 25 years ago (hint: referred to recently on this blog) and was dismayed to come across a plethora of words, some of which, luckily, stirred a vague memory in my word-hoard. Nevertheless many of them forced me to stop, and go to my online Oxford Dictionary of English and check to see if my understanding tallied with the author’s use and, embarrassingly, to actually look up new words that appeared almost on every page – it was like reading in a foreign language.
I remember – I think – reading somewhere that Anthony Burgess (The Malaysian Trilogy; A Clockwork Orange; Earthly Powers, etc.) kept a dictionary on the shelf in his toilet and tore out a page each day after having committed it to memory!
I am not going to go that far, of course and, besides, I don’t have a paper dictionary, remember?
Wasn’t it Humpty Dumpty who said (rather crossly, as far as I can remember) that words mean what you want them to mean, so here is a sample of words that I came across – hats off to anyone who can understand these, lifted, as they are, from context – but all from the same novel published in 1989 – shortlisted for the Booker Prize too!
^ jorum *
In all honesty, I can’t remember what half of them mean now – and I only finished reading the novel yesterday, too. Luckily my online OED keeps track of recently looked up words so there you have it. Nevertheless, it’s humbling to think that the English language is so vast and complex that there will always be new words to come across and not just the recently added ones as in “Milkshake Duck” which was recently acclaimed as the Word of the Year here in Australia. Go figure it out yourself.
* Words I have a memory my father used to use but I still had to check to ensure the author’s use tallied with my understanding of my father’s usage all those years ago.
^ Words which the inbuilt dictionary on my iMac does not recognise.