How I think about vocabulary

by on June 13, 2017 at 12:11 am in Education, Uncategorized | Permalink

Relative to my education, including self-education, I think of myself as commanding only a limited English-language vocabulary.  Some of this comes from having studied two foreign languages as an adult, which means picking up vocabulary in other languages instead, as the marginal value of a word in the foreign language usually will be higher.  Another factor is the complementarity of “direct speech” modes and a fairly modest vocabulary; it doesn’t make sense to talk common sense and suddenly interject “albescent.”

There is also a third reason.  I think of “flowery” vocabulary as operating against what Richard Hamming calls “compound learning.”  Compound learning occurs when your new learning, and your new analysis, builds steadily upon the old.  Over time, learning is a bit like compound interest and it cumulates.

When compound learning is possible, you wish to keep a relatively well-defined set of analytic pieces on the table.  It is fine and indeed essential to add to those pieces, but then the new piece should be one that will stick around for a while, again so that you may learn with it.  Furthermore it should be readily shared with other people, used with ease on the blog or Twitter, and stick in your mind without much if any effort.  It’s a bit like having a consistent programming language or micro model to share across a lunch table, or indeed with yourself over time.

Should I write of a “velleity,” or of a slight, non-fervent wish?

The former seems to me rather periphrastic.

1 UncleMartyPants June 13, 2017 at 12:23 am

“Velleity” might be a useful word, whereas I will never use “albescent” in my life.


2 Will June 13, 2017 at 8:37 am

My thoughts exactly. “velleity” is somewhat of an example of where I’d differ from Tyler; I think its probably a better choice in this case, *especially* in a blog post where I can trivially look up the meaning even without it being hyperlinked.

I’d not heard “velleity” before, but when I googled it at reading this post I got
> velleity: a wish or inclination not strong enough to lead to action
which is non-trivially different than Tyler’s gloss. Not dramatically different in the sense he was wrong, but its a good example of the subtleties in how we compress definitions and concepts into words can make the words, at the very least, interesting to learn rather than always replacing them with our best gloss on the concept.


3 Mark Thorson June 13, 2017 at 11:06 am

As in “I have a velleity the Flynn investigation would end.” That would have saved so much misunderstanding.


4 zztop June 14, 2017 at 12:37 am

You’re not a calciminer, apparently.


5 Ray Lopez June 13, 2017 at 12:28 am

What TC refers to in the beginning is precisely why overseas they prize English language teachers who don’t know how to speak any other language. The theory is they will not be corrupted by xeno-vocabulary and teach their students better.


6 Brian June 13, 2017 at 3:25 pm

“precisely why overseas they prize English language teachers who don’t know how to speak any other language.”

To the extent they do prefer monolinguals, it’s because they won’t be able to find another job that pays better. Students prefer a teacher that can, but doesn’t, speak the local tongue.


7 The Anti-Gnostic June 13, 2017 at 12:34 am

‘Periphrastic’ seems apt.

I used ‘ignominous’ in conversation today, in reference to the death of David Carradine.


8 Alistair June 13, 2017 at 11:13 am

Yes, killed by a 5-point exploding heart technique. What a way to go.


9 Brian June 13, 2017 at 3:27 pm

Why not just use good old English circumlocutory instead of fancy Greek periphrastic?


10 Steve Sailer June 13, 2017 at 12:40 am

A lot of “poetic” vocabulary like albescent (used by, for example, Walt Whitman) was useful for painting word pictures in your mind in an era when visual imagery was expensive to reproduce so people turned to words to conjure up pictures in their heads. But now pictures are overwhelmingly abundant and cheap, so poetry and long passages of description in prose are no longer mainstream pleasures but are now high end luxuries. Thus, words that were useful for painting mental pictures are less useful than 100 years ago.

I bet, however, that Tyler would ace a test of “conceptual” (rather than “visual”) vocabulary, words that remain highly useful.

Here’s a general vocabulary quiz of 120 words that estimates how many words you know.

I scored 40,100 once. I think the maximum score is 45,000 words.


11 A waco demolition called morrison June 13, 2017 at 1:05 am

That’s fairy interesting sir. Visual vocabulary came into vogue with Flaubert, though it was there since the romantic poets and Twain, and Joyce, and Nabokov, and O’Connor and I suppose the reaction against it was with Carver and Updike, other realists and even the beats split the needle.

Visual Vocabulary I would argue needs an uprising, to fight the photo taking infantilism which has spread like a great plague amid a torrent of emoticons and misused symbols, other haute culture paradigms that reap the ashes of advertising platforms. Besides, the great chemist Kafka reminds us that pigments are organic and inorganic materials from the earth, a visual vocabulary is thus a scientific one as Roy has “aptly” said.

In a lot of ways, these advertising platforms have killed the great Chirico’s Pittura metafisica and Ansel Adam’s “visualization, whereby the final image is “seen” in the mind’s eye before the photo is taken, toward the goal of achieving all together the aesthetic, intellectual, spiritual, and mechanical effects desired.”

Now Rimbaud was a great artist that’s for sure and his opinion is not known, on this tie. Of course, the conceptual vocabulary is defined by David Foster Wallace, and to wonder if he is a poet is reasonable.


12 anonymous as usual June 13, 2017 at 1:39 am

A waco demolition – Rimbaud was not a bad artist, and he was a real artist. Was he great, though? Maybe not. Fundamentally unsound on basic artistic principles like the love each human should feel for other humans. Not his fault, probably – he was by nature, as are most of us, selfish, but physically unattractive – had he been born female he might have passed as pretty, but he was born male and, let’s face it, women are not as likely as men to find awkwardness “cute” in the opposite sex – and he did look awkward, poor guy – and even if not awkward, certainly far below the level where a young man can do well with the ladies without the benjamins – and his parents were, well, the sort of parents one would expect someone like Rimbaud to have (pause here to feel a little bit of sadness for every little puppy and every dog. little or big, in a home where puppies and dogs are neither beloved nor understood) , and on top of all that he did not have the good luck to stoically understand that many of his problems were only problems because he did not have much cash. None of this could have been easy for him, and his often enervated poetry is a testament to this.
Steve Sailer – as you know, the map is not the territory. “poetry and long passages of description in prose are no longer mainstream pleasures but are now high end luxuries”. Well put, but then again, guys are always going to try and be as creative as they can to impress the ladies, who are, after all, a target audience in almost all spheres of “high end luxuries”. Quality trumps quantity, and It will cycle back.


13 FG June 13, 2017 at 10:14 am

Was Rimbaud even interested in ladies?


14 anonymous as usual June 13, 2017 at 10:18 pm

You tell me. Davis, A. Confessions of a college lesbian, September 15, 1999, Seattle Times might explain better than I can what I think was going through the poor secular poet’s mind …………………………………………
He had at least one female mistress in his colonial days, I read somewhere – remember, he was not all that bright and had very little future time orientation, so for him to have a mistress is sort of like having an opposite-sex spouse for the rest of us ………………………..
A couple of Maugham’s mostly heterosexual characters, in some of those great stories, are based loosely on Rimbuad, and Maugham knows more about this sort of thing than I do…………………………………………………..
“Priez pour lui” are the only words on his gravestone, besides his name…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..
So yes, he was interested in the ladies, I think.

15 Asimo June 13, 2017 at 2:47 am

OK, I didn’t hit 40,000 and knew I wouldn’t, however as Tyler noted, if you learn a foreign language, in my case Japanese, that takes up space. I think I hit around 43,000 total. (10,000 J words seems about right.)


16 Mark Thorson June 13, 2017 at 11:08 am

That was the reason Sherlock Holmes gave for not knowing the names of the planets.


17 Todd K June 13, 2017 at 12:27 pm

That was probably in A Study in Scarlet novel where Watson first meets Holmes. Watson lists the subjects Holmes has almost no knowledge in and says: “Astronomy – nothing.”.


18 Alex June 13, 2017 at 12:41 am

Fair enough, but go read a novel by Norman Rush, preferably Mortals or Mating.

Some rarer words don’t just give additional (if only slightly, diminishingly) precision, but they contribute to style.

So the marginal value of each new word might be low, but you can hit a tipping point or critical mass that changes the game.

Is there a more distinctive Tyler Cowen voice?


19 Tyrone June 13, 2017 at 2:48 am

Yes, mine.


20 Dzhaughn June 13, 2017 at 12:42 am

But how can you read so much if your vocabulary is indeed so limited?


21 anonymous June 13, 2017 at 12:45 am

Very few really good chess players had a really good prose style (none, in English, although poor Beckett came close on the chess side). Similarly, to make a simplistic point, there have been upwards of 10K American-English speaking athletes who have been featured on a Topps sports trading card. Of that 10K plus, a few have been very very good conversationalists – just to mention those affiliated with the Mets, Kiner, Hernandez, Darling, and McCarver, and of course Stengel – but I have never heard anyone claim that any of them had or has a memorable and unique prose style, or any rare level of talent with respect to mastery of English vocabulary, or that a single one of them ever wrote a single line of real poetry (well…at 10k words a day most of us probably throw off a few good iambs now and then…but that is what it is, and does not contradict anything I am saying ). Same is true, by the way, of the 10K congressmen who grew up speaking American English, and of the thousands of Supreme Court (federal), state supreme court, and federal appellate court judges. Due to hero-worship, a few of the type of people who get their pictures on coins are often called geniuses of language, but I am not buying it, with one or two possible exceptions (not Lincoln, by the way. A good rhetorician, but not a person who really cared about other people enough. You know that is true.) I prefer “velleity” to “slight, non-fervent wish” in 60 percent of phrases, by the way; but I am the sort of person who still tries, with the best of intentions, not to still feel a little bit of contempt for people who like to mock other people for trying to understand the world that they live in. Excelsior, as they say. So there’s that.


22 anonymous June 13, 2017 at 1:08 am

In case you were fishing for compliments, Professor Cowen, I think your prose style is very good. Not sure how good of a baseball announcer you would be: then again I remember that guy who announced the Fischer Spassky tournament on PBS, with that big old felt chess board on the wall behind him, you probably would do as good a job as he did. Chateaubriand? Shelby something?


23 Steve Sailer June 13, 2017 at 2:40 am

Major league baseball batters aren’t very bookish, perhaps because sitting inside reading books as a boy instead of being outside playing baseball appears to be bad for eyesight. (MLB hitters often have 20/12 or even 20/10 eyesight, which is what allows them to see what kind of spin is on the ball as it leaves the pitcher’s hand.)

Most of the better writers among major league ballplayers, such as Jim Bouton, Jim Brosnan, and F.R. Dickey, have been pitchers.

Ron Shelton (“Bull Durham”) was a minor league second basemen, but not a good hitter.


24 David Condon June 13, 2017 at 12:55 am

What you’re referring to is one of the oldest ideas in psychology. If two stimuli are frequently paired together, they will be more likely to be recalled subsequently if either is mentioned. The method of loci is, in part, built upon the concept. A larger vocabulary, as you say, will result in fewer pairings, and thereby increase the difficulty of subsequent recollection. Now if only psychologists could learn to incorporate this principal into their own terminology.


25 Mark Thorson June 13, 2017 at 1:01 am

I’ve written and edited many specifications and manuals, and an important rule is always remember the reader. Don’t use a fifty-cent word when small change will do, unless it’s a term of art in which case consider adding a glossary of terms. Don’t assume the reader is a native speaker of English, so don’t make unusual uses of common words. Anticipate what misinterpretations the reader might make and remove them. I once edited a document my boss had written, and he asked why I changed “since” to “because”. I answered that “since” has two meanings, one of which is identical to “because” and the other which means something like “from the time of”.

One of the final tasks in preparing a document, shortly before doing the spell-check, is to do a global search on “it” and double-check that there is no way the reader could possibly assume the wrong referent for each one. I am always surprised how many ambiguous cases I manage to find when I try to see through the reader’s eyes. Being explicit costs a few extra words, but better a few words than somebody turning the wrong knob.


26 hville June 13, 2017 at 2:11 am

That is because specs and manuals are meant to communicate.

I suspect a lot of words are used for signalling.


27 Axa June 13, 2017 at 5:07 am

“They want to read books, so they can learn long words and then use them to make you feel stupid”


28 Steve Sailer June 13, 2017 at 2:19 am

Indeed, using “since” to mean “because” is just asking for trouble because it’s easy for the reader to guess wrong which meaning of “since” you intend.


29 Butler T. Reynolds June 13, 2017 at 7:21 am

I like the IKEA approach of completely getting rid of vocabulary.


30 zbicyclist June 13, 2017 at 8:57 am

Good points. In specifications, you want to have a 1 to 1 match of word to concept/object. You don’t want two words for the same thing, and you don’t want one word to refer to more than one thing.


31 Mark Thorson June 13, 2017 at 10:48 am

Yes, that is another common problem. At a previous job, I pointed out we were making both kinds of errors. We had three things we called a “pad”, the bond pads on the chip, the elastomer pad, and the pads on the interposer where we did solder ball attach. We also had multiple names for the units while they went through the production process. They were made in a group called variously a “strip” or a “”panel” which was held in a “tray” or a “carrier”. I proposed a set of unique names for these things, but it was ignored by everybody. Different departments had been using different names for years before I got there, and getting them to change their language would be impossible unless it affected their paycheck. The lesson is when pioneering a new technology, lock down the names of things right away before bad habits can form. You won’t get another chance.


32 Lexical Mentat June 13, 2017 at 2:07 am


A most excellent and esoteric post.

There is a lot more to vocabulary than highfalutin choices and estimating known words.

The standard of how vocabulary performs at a meal is a fine metric and I heartily recommend others go by it.

When thinking about “to what extent should a person strive to master an increasing number of words compared with distinct pursuits?” the example that there are really only about 400 hapax legomena in Tanach is somewhat instructive, can be said to be an example of using obscure words only occasionally.



33 Asher June 13, 2017 at 2:07 am

When I was in college I thought I had a very large vocabulary. I read widely and I got a perfect score on the SAT vocabulary sub-score. Then I went to a lecture by Bill Buckley and I was surprised to find that I had difficulty following him.


34 Steve Sailer June 13, 2017 at 2:16 am

Here are the words in John Updike’s 1978 novel “The Coup” with which William F. Buckley was unfamiliar, according to WFB’s December 14, 1978 column in which he passed “the sesquipedalian torch” to Updike:

“Harmattan, disphoretic, toubab, laterite, suras, euphorbia, extollation, jerboa, coussabe, sareba, bilharzia, pangolins hyraxes, pestles, phloem xylem, eversion, goobers, marabout, xerophytic, oleograph, cowries, chrysoprase, henna, scree, riverine, adsorptive, haptic, burnoose”


35 Peter Akuleyev June 13, 2017 at 3:59 am

That list is an interesting monument to a moment in time, or maybe WFB’s lack of interest in non-Western cultures. I am sure most Americans recognize “henna” these days, and most MR readers probably know what a “sura” is. Most cooks would recognize a pestle.

Fun fact, the German word for “eversion” is “Eversion”.


36 Mark Thorson June 13, 2017 at 11:15 am

Really? WFB did not know what a goober is? That’s like not knowing what a corndog is.


37 A clockwork orange June 13, 2017 at 11:22 am

Bilharzia is a disease one can suffer from if one thinks tapeworm infections are wormhole antipodes. In this case I suppose the tapeworm is a lettuce wrapped in food poisoning alleged, regarding the Anthropocene epoch, a clever antidote to the biased inflection of Cowan’s cough.


38 Peter Akuleyev June 13, 2017 at 3:51 am

An excellent humble brag, sir! Learning foreign languages generally tends to expand your English vocabulary, and improves your sense of the shadings of meaning of English words. This is probably true for Tyler as well.


39 Careless June 13, 2017 at 5:27 pm

And the best kind of humblebrag is the kind you’ve pre-refuted with maybe 10 million words of blogging and authoring over the past 20 years


40 Sam Haysom June 13, 2017 at 8:17 pm

Except Cowen’s vocabulary usage isnt particularly impressive (use big words for their own sake sucks but for the sake of context let’s pretend it doesn’t) and there is very little evidence that Cowen actually speaks these other two languages very well.


41 carlospln June 13, 2017 at 3:51 am

I know ’em all.

[what’s ‘harmattan’?]



42 Anonymous June 13, 2017 at 4:42 am

I speak three languages (English not being my native one) and what strikes me in English is the sheer number of words in existence. In my native language it is very rare for an adult (or even a teenager) to encounter a word they don’t understand. English seems to be full of obsolete words or words used only in poetry or highbrow literature that even an advanced English speaker doesn’t necessarily understand.


43 Todd K June 13, 2017 at 5:40 am

“English seems to be full of obsolete words”

25 years ago I saw a book that was written around 1910 that listed the most common English words beyond the most common 1000, 2000 – or something like that – by frequency in newspapers. The most common was a blacksmith* term that I had never heard of. I think it begins with an ‘a’…

* For millennials reading, a blacksmith is 1..a person who makes horseshoes and shoes horses.
2.a person who forges** objects of iron.

** To forge in this context means to “make or shape (a metal object) by heating it in a fire or furnace and beating or hammering it.”


44 Butler T. Reynolds June 13, 2017 at 7:24 am

What’s a hammer?


45 Todd K June 13, 2017 at 9:08 am

That is left as an exercise for the millennial student.


46 Careless June 13, 2017 at 5:31 pm

Ferriers shoe horses.


47 Todd K June 13, 2017 at 5:50 pm

I knew that due to my deep knowledge of F words. I was testing you, and you did well.


48 Larry Siegel June 15, 2017 at 1:58 am

Farriers shoe horses. Ferriers do it in France.


49 Anonymous June 13, 2017 at 5:15 am

Turing-award winning computer scientist Alan Perlis once said: “Get into a rut early: Do the same process the same way. Accumulate idioms. Standardize. The only difference(!) between Shakespeare and you was the size of his idiom list – not the size of his vocabulary.” (source:


50 rayward June 13, 2017 at 6:29 am

One needs to make the distinction between oral and written vocabulary. There are those who have extensive oral vocabularies who can’t write a clear sentence; and there are those who write beautiful sentences who become almost incoherent when speaking. The academy, unfortunately, is afflicted with a bad case of jargon. I suppose it’s helpful among those in the academy to communicate with each other (they speak the same language) but at the same time it limits the vocabulary. My observation about Cowen is that his oral vocabulary is more than adequate; indeed, his speaking voice is almost like listening to music (which is why I prefer to read a transcript of his conversations and talks). His written vocabulary varies: there are his Bloomberg essays that read like they were spoken (I assume they are dictated) and there are his longer, academic essays that read like they were written. Both are more than adequate. But listening to interviews of Cowen during his book tour revealed the secret to his talent as a speaker: he has already thought about almost any question he could be asked about almost any subject (not just his book), so his responses (and, hence, his vocabulary) have already been formed in his head before the words are emitted from his mouth. There’s no pause for his brain to assemble the words, the assembling having already taken place before he is asked the question. Cowen revealed the secret to his ability to speed read (he has read so much on so many topics that he can scan a page and determine if there’s anything there he doesn’t already know). The same secret applies to his ability to speed talk: he has already assembled the words in his brain and just needs to open his mouth to let them flow out.


51 rayward June 13, 2017 at 6:50 am

Listening and reading use different parts of the brain. What’s more, brains differ. Read a transcript of a Trump speech and it reads like gibberish. Yet, his supporters hang on his every word as if a revelation. Why is that? The usual explanation is the Trump communicates with his supporters via code. Maybe. I remember listening to Reagan speak and couldn’t understand his reputation as the great communicator. His halting tone reminded me of an exasperated high school principal speaking to wayward students. On the other hand, a transcript of a Reagan speech revealed the wisdom of his words.


52 jseliger June 13, 2017 at 9:16 am

stick in your mind without much if any effort. It’s a bit like having a consistent programming language or micro model to share across a lunch table, or indeed with yourself over time.

I wonder if it’s better to use something like Anki: and make sure that when something effortful sticks, it really sticks.

Perhaps one could even embed the sentence in which one first encounters an unusual word or concept.


53 Jack June 13, 2017 at 9:32 am

Professor Cowen conflates a number of issues. There is a large vocabulary that enables (or is because) the speaker or writer has subtle ways of looking at and thinking about the world. There is flowery speech. There are odd words, especially in English because English has borrowed from so many languages. Then there is the point about how learning foreign languages crowds out new words in one’s native language — an assertion that seems dubious.


54 Todd K June 13, 2017 at 5:54 pm

I don’t think crowds out in the way he or I stated it but in my case the time spent reading Japanese from simple stories to novels and magazines took a great deal of time where I would have been reading English books that would have expanded my vocabulary if in history or literature – especially literature.


55 Edward Burke June 13, 2017 at 9:56 am

Could “velleity” be construed as “periphrastic” if our primary and secondary education offered greater exposure to classical Greek and Latin?


56 Evans_KY June 13, 2017 at 10:11 am

Flowery language is a secret code/handshake that signals to others that you know what you are talking about. Unfortunately it is also used to obfuscate/hide inconsistencies in one’s argument and manipulate less critical thinkers. The best communicators know their audience and the best audience can recognize faulty reasoning and dishonest assumptions.


57 chrisare June 13, 2017 at 10:20 am

Well just as Nabakov says you can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style, you can also always count on an economist for a dull prose style.


58 sternstein June 14, 2017 at 10:03 am

NabOkov doesn’t say that; Humbert does, and Humbert’s view is expressedly NOT Nabokov’s.


59 Brian Timoney June 13, 2017 at 10:42 am

The word “velleity” features prominently in a great scene in DeLillo’s Underworld whose larger theme is language and the building of a self.

The more you know…


60 Daniel Weber June 13, 2017 at 10:57 am

As an amateur vocab buff, there comes a point of seriously diminishing returns.

The old joke:

“The teacher passed the list of rare words out to his students and told them to learn them carefully, since this might be the only time they ever encounter them.”


61 Hazel Meade June 13, 2017 at 11:14 am

The point of language is communication. It depends on your audience but it helps to use the same vocabulary that your audience is using. Otherwise, you’re just being stupid.
In other words, if you use obscure words when speaking to an audience full of people who aren’t likely to know them, you look like a pompous ass. And if you use 6th grade vocabulary when speaking to a scientific audience that has more precise language that has been refined to describe more refined concepts, you look like an idiot.
Aside from that, as long as everyone gets the gist of what you are saying, there are no rules. Go ahead and use bad grammar and mixed metaphors.


62 Pensans June 13, 2017 at 2:13 pm

Hazel, language does not have a point. It has many uses.

Language communicates many things in addition to facilitating communication of concepts. The shibboleth is an example. It communicates identity without communicating a concept. Also, people who speak to sixth graders so that sixth graders understand everything they are saying are not teaching them how to speak.

There are many other important occasions where not communicating concepts is critical to language.

Mt 13:10 The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” 11 He replied, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. 12 Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables: “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand. 14 In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: “‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. 15 For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’ 16 But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear.


63 TWT June 13, 2017 at 4:30 pm

Tyler started reading the dictionary from page 1 and “albescent” was the first word he didn’t know. Straussian.


64 Bill June 13, 2017 at 9:03 pm

Isabel Beck and colleagues at Pitt have used the same thinking to good effect with children when trying to close the “achievement gap” between children from impoverished, vocabulary poor, backgrounds and children from better socio-economic backgrounds. They call it the “robust vocabulary model.” The categorize words to prioritize teaching the kinds of words through direct instruction that will help children compound oral and written fluency.


65 Ethan Bernard June 13, 2017 at 9:55 pm

I’m bummed that Art Deco hasn’t commented on this thread.


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