Chacos column: Are we doomed to have only good vocabulary?
Enjoy the Ride
When I hear a fancy word I don’t know, I open my phone and type it into a page titled, “Words to learn and try out in casual conversation without sounding like an idiot.” Then I slip the phone back into my pocket before anyone notices what I’m doing. I’m not erudite or anything, but I simply love the idea of elevated vocabulary. Unfortunately, my overuse of words like, “awesome” and the ubiquitous “motherf**ker” betray my lofty ambitions.
Back in high school, I had the opportunity to take Latin. Instead, I took Spanish because that’s where the cool kids went to get an easy A and learn how to order Coca-Cola from a waiter in another language. As we were goofing off, the more intellectual students were down the hall studying complex phrases and deciphering new words by their Latin roots, like erudite, I presume. By the time we graduated, their standardized test scores were double mine and I’ve been trying to catch up ever since.
Over the next few years, my spoken word improved marginally. I blame watching South Park and 90210 while reading US Magazine, romance novels, and the occasional USA Today. With the readability score of these texts calculated between a 5th – 8th grade reading level by the Flesch-Kinkaid tests, I became a swirling St. Elmo’s dumpster fire of trashy media. Although these tests don’t accurately describe the intelligence of the person consuming this light fare, I was soon armed with enough simplistic vocabulary to maneuver around a beer-soaked, house party with sweaty ease.
A few years later, my parents insisted on providing me with a better vocabulary and expanded worldview. They gifted me a lifetime subscription to Time magazine and encouraged me to read from authors like Leon Uris and Maya Angelou. They also prompted me to watch better television, like 60 Minutes, but I often ignored their suggestions for shows like the Simpson’s and Seinfeld. Occasionally, I’d pick up The New York Times, which has a 10th grade readability score, by the by. The input I received obviously improved, followed by my speech and written word. I was now a competent cocktail guest, able to schmooze my way around adult parties on solid footing.
Then along came fate waiting for me on a casual hike with a friend. I should have learned more in school and paid even more attention as an adult, especially when he started talking about his astigmatism (that’s an eyeball issue).
“You mean, you have a stigmatism,” I combatively corrected, because that’s how annoying I can be with language sometimes.
“Nope, look it up,” he assured me, and took a long swig from his water bottle. He then followed up by asking how I choose to pronounce words like “flaccid” and “comptroller.” He apologized for sounding pugnacious and I quickly pulled out my phone and added that to the list of words I needed to learn and one day use, thinking it must mean “a**hole.” Then, I smugly asked if he ever took Latin in high school.
Soon, my mispronounced and incorrectly used vocabulary was pointed out to me in tsunami-like waves. “Irregardless” is simply not the word we think it is and using “regardless” is best. I never knew the inner-ear issue, “tinnitus,” is really pronounced “ti-nuh-tuhs.” Never has a barista told me to order an “espresso,” not an “ex-presso” and I still get it wrong half the time. Learning new vocabulary and correcting misnomers has proven harder than listening to an off-the-cuff speech by The Donald.
I’m not suggesting we all walk around with a dictionary in one hand and the writings of Kant’s philosophy in the other. That’s not practical, and it’s no fun being around someone who uses language unnaturally, unless they’re Kant or my super-smart friend with astigmatism. Being authentic with the language you effortlessly possess is awesome but having more skills than Beavis and Butthead is simply more civilized.
Andrea Chacos lives in Carbondale, Colorado balancing work and happily raising three children with her husband. She strives to dodge curveballs life likes to throw with a bit of passion, humor, and some flair. She can be reached at: http://www.andreachacos.com
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