I once read that the average American only uses about 3,000 different words in typical English conversation. But with over half-a-million words available in our language, it seems like a shame to waste such a great opportunity. Those 3,000 words include some of the most mundane and uninspiring terms ever used in speech, words like “those,” “words,” “include,” and “mundane.” No wonder we don’t like to hear other people babble on.
Classic books provide an opportunity to discover new—old, actually—words, expressions that you can integrate into your daily conversations. What fun! I have made note of some new words encountered during the Well-Read Man Project.
- Anent – about or concerning
- Aqua fortis – nitric acid
- Autodidact – one who engages in self-learning
- Contumacy – stubborn resistance to authority
- Dolorous – marked by misery or grief
- Nugatory – of little consequence
- Peculate – embezzle
- Peradventure – perhaps, possibly
- Perspicuous – easy to understand
- Primogeniture – rights of inheritance for the firstborn child
- Quiddity – true essence
- Ratiocination – reasoned thought
- Ruth – pity
Peradventure you found this quiddity of ratiocination perspicuous though nugatory? That’s a ruth, because reading the classics doesn’t just enhance our vocabulary, it shows us how we are failing to use those words we already know. At least that’s what happened to me.
Having grown up in the church, I must have heard the parable of the Prodigal Son hundreds of time. It’s the story of a wayward child whose father who doesn’t give up on him. Some newer Bible translations give this story the title “The Lost Son,” which makes sense, what with “prodigal” meaning “lost” and all. But in my recent read through Dante’s Divine Comedy, I discovered that the fourth circle of Hell was dedicated to the Greedy and their polar opposites, the Prodigals. What? How can “greedy” be the opposite of “lost?”
And so I humbled myself and cracked open the dictionary. Prodigal. Noun. Characterized by profuse or wasteful expenditure. In other words—or in the correct words—someone who wastes money, whether he is lost or not. Color me dolorous.
I kept a list of new words to help me through this reading project. But I think it is a practice I will maintain well into the future. Many of the words I discovered are somewhat archaic, and it’s unlikely that I will pepper my conversation with them. But even if I only keep them to myself, they still seem to have an impact on how I use the English language. And that’s nothing to be ashamed anent.
[Image Credits: FreeStockPhotos.biz/Petr Kratochvil]