The elevator in my office building has a screen in it that shows headlines, stock quotes, polls, and vocabulary words. Over time, staring at its vocabulary words has made me realize a real failing in how the idea of a richer vocabulary is generally presented.
To be blunt, these vocabulary words come off as ridiculous and pretentious. This isn’t a real example, but this is the sort of thing I see:
Pulchritude: (n) beauty
Example: Laura was thrilled by the pulchritude of her new four-inch heels from Bebe.
This use of the word irritates me because there’s no reason not to just say “beauty.” There’s no sense of what might make pulchritude a better word to choose. There’s no sense of how it differs, or how it shades meaning. It must be different, because it rings so strangely in that sentence and that context, but I’m not given any understanding of how.
I think vocabulary lessons like this, which are similar to how I learned vocabulary in school or how it shows up on standardized tests, give the impression that you use these “50-cent” words to show off and exclude stupid people, not because they are really better words to choose. As a journalist, I’m trained to write simply, so I have been doubly biased against these words.
What’s recently cured me of this impression is the prose of China Mieville, Joseph Conrad, and other writers who love those less commonly used words and care deeply about choosing the right ones. I have to read Mieville with a dictionary at my side, but I’ve come to really appreciate the subtle shadings he creates with word choice, both in terms of meaning and in terms of mood.
It’s made me think that these example sentences for vocabulary words need more context.
Maybe there need to be example paragraphs, not sentences. There might be a reason to use “pulchritude” to describe Laura’s shoes, but I think it’s likely stylistic and more prose is needed to illustrate this.
Also, vocabulary words should probably be taught in groups. Teach “pulchritude” alongside “beauty” and “allure,” and really illustrate the cases where one is a great choice and the others aren’t. Synonyms don’t actually mean the same thing-they are shaded differently, and vocabulary words should be presented with that sense of connotation and context.
That, after all, is the interesting part, and the part that makes it worthwhile to expand vocabulary.