Vocabulary is very interesting to me this year, actually for a while longer than that, but it seems to be especially prominent in my thoughts now. Henry Fielding is my current literary crush. Vocabulary is one of the big reasons Fielding is so appealing to me. Our ‘Augustans and Romantics Study Guide’ confirms all of the reasons I enjoy reading Fielding so much: complexity, structure, wit and humor, drawing attention to art, intelligence, and narration. The Study Guide does not mention vocabulary as such, but to me its importance is implied, or at least I inferred it. For me vocabulary is one of the great running jokes between Fielding’s narrators and the reader.
This reader confesses to reading Fielding with at least three dictionaries to hand: ‘The Oxford Dictionary and Usage Guide’, ‘The Dictionary of Latin Phrases’, and Abrams’ ‘Glossary of Literary Terms.’ The classical quotes and references are an interesting part of Fielding’s fiction. Most of the time Fielding translates the Latin phrases he uses, but not always. Why would he choose to leave specific phrases un-rendered in English? Are his reasons somehow related to his wonderful active vocabulary?
This aspect of Fielding’s texts highlight the subtleties of his work to me. Surely his broad vocabulary is part of the mix of ‘high’ and ‘low’ and the mock-heroic, but it also feeds his satire. Here is where it tickles the reader and feels like an encounter with absolute genius. For me, the diction and word choice is part of the intimacy between the narrator and the reader. Fielding could not possibly have expected everyone reading his fiction to have such an extensive vocabulary. There lies the joke and the barb. Vocabulary is like a secret handshake; we are admitted to collusion, understanding and participation at the doors our active vocabulary will unlock. It is a source of both categorizing and self-revelation. Fielding’s vocabulary points out something of interest to me about what we think we know, and the degree to which we actually possess and can communicate knowledge.
Possessing knowledge is a big motivator for pursuing advanced degree work. Vocabulary is an interesting part of the process. In English studies, like other disciplines, there is a specialized vocabulary. This professional jargon is at first a little intimidating. The language of criticism and the academic register also requires some getting used to. To my surprise this specialized vocabulary is not as impressive and has not affected me as much as increasing my active vocabulary has.
It was very surprising to learn how complex the definition of the term vocabulary actually is. There are several terms or phrases to describe the degree of knowledge we possess regarding the words in our vocabulary. Several more categories measure, or allow, us to expand our mastery over words, and how we communicate and acquire knowledge. Active vocabulary and passive vocabulary become very interesting in academics. Almost knowing a word, or assuming a meaning based on context, might be a reasonable starting point, but for me, exploring collocation, morphology, orthography, phonology, reference, register, semantics, syntax and word association are absolutely necessary to using a word with confidence.
Vocabulary is the tool we use to communicate and the tool we use to think. Linguists estimate first year college students have an active vocabulary of approximately 5,000 words and college graduates’ vocabulary is approximately 8,000 words. That puts my fascination with vocabulary in perspective. It would be surprising to not notice adding around 1,000 extra words a year to my active vocabulary. Besides the pleasure a rich vocabulary gives the ear, and the reader, it offers a lot of satisfaction to the thinker. Henry Fielding, like other great authors we read, surely are great thinkers. Students are aspiring thinkers in the discipline of their choice. Here’s to the power of vocabulary and thinking, which together admit us, as Fielding says, ‘behind the scenes of this great theatre of Nature.’