I mentioned recently that I sometimes need to ‘top up’ my supply of words by reading voraciously just about anything I can get my hands on. It doesn’t have to be anything of any great literary value; indeed, I think what I’m really looking for is not so much words as such, it’s colloquial and fluent usage and phrasing that can perhaps be repurposed so that not all the clients I work for in a particular sector end up with the same wording on their websites and marketing collateral.
Since then, I’ve been wondering generally about vocabulary knowledge and learning: how many words do we know? Do adults continue to learn new words and, if so, how many?
Rummaging around on the web – alternatively known as “googling”, a word that meant nothing until just a few years ago – I have turned up the following statistics:
I also found the test your vocab website, which provided a delightful interlude on a grey Sunday afternoon, not least because of the joys of the theory behind the test, which are to be found on the site’s ‘nitty gritty’ page.
Reading that, it becomes clear that what actually counts as a word is not intuitive, and that it’s not easy, either, to define what’s meant by ‘knowing’ a word or phrase.
Even a concrete, tangible object may be referred to by different words in different circumstances or by different people: I would use the word ‘glass’ to refer to many different types of drinking vessel, but a silver-service waiter may use words such as ‘schooner’, ‘tumbler’, ‘snifter’ and ‘flute’.
Of course, a word can have different meanings: if a story tells of the princess looking at her reflection in a glass, the word ‘glass’ almost certainly refers to a mirror. If the prince sails to the city in a schooner, he has arrived aboard a boat; and if the court is entertained by a tumbler who plays a flute, they have the pleasure of listening to a musical acrobat.
Sometimes, the circumstances under which we meet new words are such that we misunderstand from the start – a fact that we may never realise. I remember reading the word ‘subterfuge’ in a slightly dubious novel when I was a very young teenager; the context made it difficult for me to risk asking an adult what it meant, so I had to look it up in the dictionary. Fortunately I was brought up in a house with dictionaries in every room, or I might even now avoid the word thinking it too vulgar for polite company.
Learning words through reading definitely raises potential difficulties. I’ve been writing poetry for decades and, although I’ve read widely and won awards for my work, I am essentially self taught. It can be exceedingly embarrassing when a student queries your pronunciation of a technical word in a subject in which you are supposed to be an expert. (When this happened to me with ‘enjambment’, it was fortunate that I could fall back on the years I spent in America as an excuse!)
Sometimes, too, words just change meaning over time. When I was a little girl I learned lots of the group nouns – not just the usual ones: a swarm of bees, pack of wolves, school of dolphins, herd of cows and flock of sheep… but the more esoteric, too: a charm of finches, covey of grouse and murder of crows… Back then, I learned that a flock of larks – of which I had never knowingly seen or heard even one – was an exaltation, while a flock of starlings – of which I saw and heard many in the urban setting of my childhood – was a murmuration.
It never occurred to me that either exaltation or murmuration referred to anything other than the sound that these birds make when in groups. And when, much later in life, I used to walk through Birmingham from work to the station and watch the starlings flock up into every nook and cranny of the façades along New Street, I listened to their busy fuss and chatter and recognised how right the word was.
Recently, though, I have been told quite emphatically that ‘murmuration’ is the specific word for the great black swarming clouds of starlings that move as one, like shoals of fish.
This doesn’t seem right at all: I’ve no doubt that starlings have always flown in clouds, but I never noticed this behaviour in the narrow city streets; they were hustling, bustling, boisterous birds whose primary characteristic when they flocked together was the sound they made.
It wasn’t until phones had cameras in them and everyone became a videographer that people started to want a word for the displays they caught on video and uploaded to YouTube. The most impressive of these displays that I’ve seen are ones where the birds are in open countryside; these must have been watched from a distance and usually filmed without sound; so why would have people appropriated a word that is clearly sound related?
I’m not disputing that the formations are flocks of starlings, nor that the word ‘murmuration’ may be right; but, as far as I’m concerned, the word refers to any flock of starlings, whatever they are doing, and I object to it being jealously taken possession of by people who’d never even looked at a starling when I first learned it.
The day ebbs orange
from the sky. Twilight
seeps into cracks
and around paving stones,
fills up the spaces
in the air and dulls
the iridescent chattering
in city eaves.
The photos used to illustrate the post were all taken at different times and in different locations in central Birmingham. The poem was written a long time ago and captures a tiny part of those moments spent scuttling between work and Moor Street station – or sometimes between work and a Pizza Hut on New Street that no longer exists – when the city demanded I pause and pay attention.