If I told you that my life was “at sixes and sevens” right now, would you know what I was talking about? You would if you lived in the year 1815. That knowledge is surprisingly un-useful, however, when trying to communicate in 2013.
I’ve always loved to read. That love has allowed me to greatly expand my vocabulary over the years. That’s a good thing. The down side of this is how often I come up with words that nobody else knows. Sometimes they’re so obscure I don’t even know them.
One of my favorite time periods in history is the Regency era in England, around 1815. I love the sparkling romances penned by Jane Austen and her modern-day (circa 1950) reincarnation, Georgette Heyer. I have read every one of her books many times over since I got hooked on them in high school. They’re like old friends. When I check out a dusty, old hardback from the local library, often the only name on its old-fashioned card is “Peg” in various colors of ink and faded pencil stretching over the last 25 years.
I was talking to someone the other day and I mentioned that life was especially chaotic right now. It wasn’t until I noted her look of confusion that I realized what I actually said was that life was “at sixes and sevens”. Not surprisingly, that Regency-era expression meant nothing to her.
The problem with having read so much from one time period is that I forget that nobody else talks that way. As new words and expressions come into vogue and old ones die out, the idiom of the day is very different now from what it was 200 years ago.
In addition to words and expressions that have passed out of favor, there are scores I know only contextually from seeing them in print. I don’t know their exact definition and, more problematic (at least as far as conversation is concerned), is that I’ve never heard them pronounced. In an effort to say precisely what I mean (and maybe impress the other person), I’ll occasionally try out one of these “never-heard” specimens only to be corrected by my more learned audience.
“That’s not how you say that!” they respond. Shot down.
One word that never ceases to bother me is artisanal. Implying that something is hand-crafted has become such a popular advertising ploy that you see this word stuck on everything from beer to factory-produced bread. Everyone I’ve heard say it pronounces the word “ar-TEES-uh-nal”. But according to Merriam-Webster online, the accent is on the first syllable “AR-tuh-zen-al”. If I say it correctly, I sound stupid.
This bugged me enough that I wrote to the Merriam-Webster editor about it. Their response? They said it is mispronounced so often they were now considering adding the alternative pronunciation to their site. The experts change to match reality. I guess that’s the beauty of a living language.
The most dedicated wordsmith I ever knew was my father-in-law, Bob. He devoured words and never stopped studying and improving his vocabulary. He delighted in using his new words in everyday conversation.
We had an ongoing, friendly disagreement on this topic for years.
Bob said that having (and using) an ever-increasing vocabulary allows you to say EXACTLY what you want so you can communicate more precisely. I agreed, but argued that you can’t truly communicate if you are using words you KNOW the other person doesn’t understand. He responded that if somebody didn’t understand a word, they should look it up. To which I replied, that kind of exchange isn’t communicating, it’s a vocabulary lecture.
I think we were both right.
In daily conversation we need to use words that most will understand. We should also challenge people to expand their vocabularies. Especially ourselves.
After all, lifelong learning is the best way to avoid becoming a caper-witted rattlepate.
What words do you know that nobody else ever uses?