Does work or school boost your vocabulary more?

From the new James R. Flynn book:

It appears that the world of work, which follows university, has been the main force behind the adult vocabulary gains of the last half-century…Note that in 1953, low-IQ people enhanced their vocabularies over the ages of 17 to 22 far more than low-IQ people did in 2000.  I suggest the hypothesis that they were more likely to be settled in apprenticeships or adult jobs in those days than today.  Even the high-IQ people increased their vocabularies more between the ages of 17 to 22 in 1953 than in 2000.  Apparently being placed in work was more potent than being in a tertiary institution.

Isn’t it also the case that we have been moving to a flatter, simpler English for a long time?  Try reading some James Fenimore Cooper.  Plus schools are less likely to make you memorize long, classic poems, which is another good way of building vocabulary.


Re: a flatter, simpler English.

My daughter's 5th grade vocabulary test this week included "threadbare" and "hair's breadth". Has anyone under 60 ever used those in conversation?

As it happens, within the last week. I'm 35.

Right before I use the words threadbare I go buy some new pants. And at work in place of hair's breadth we used the more technical RCH.

What's the R?


When someone under the age of 60 doesn't know the meaning of words such as these I assume they don't read. That assumption comes with a lot of judgement. Yes, I use both those words and I'm 31 and an engineer, not an English major. My coworkers know what they mean too.

If someone uses a slightly less common word, but pronounces it wrong I assume they do read. I have lots of words I know but don't hear that often. It's always fun when someone uses one aloud and you think "That's how you say that!"

In the construction trades -- which have also suffered -- "hair's breadth" is now defined as "dead nuts".

Actually, I do hear a form of measurement in the trades that still involves a hair's breadth. But strangely, they are very precise about who and where the hair came from in a very obscene sort of way. Don't ask me how that became common. But it does fit another trend of our culture becoming more vulgar in almost every way imaginable.

I could not have made it up.

Was James Fenimore Cooper a typical English speaker in his day? Or was the point that writers are moving towards a simpler, flatter English?

Seems like an appropriate occasion for Twain's "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses" (especially since abuse of vocabulary is on the list):

The best way that I found to increase vocabulary was watching William F. Buckley every time he was on TV. I never failed to hear at least 2 words I had never heard of before!!!

In Buckley's review of John Updike's "The Coup" he listed out all the words it contained that he didn't know.

I made a similar list when reading Michael Chabon's "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay."

It was quite long.

Buckley's list of Updike's words he didn't know:

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

The Coup is set in the Sahel, so most of these words are regional.

When I was a kid my mother used to make me read his newspaper editorials for the new words. Definitely a good way to increase your vocabulary.

I returned to school from industry precisely because I couldn't stand all the poem memorizing. Why is using words people don't know the measure of fluency? In business it's called jargon and you get negative points for using it in mixed company.

+1(though I assume you mean to industry from school?)

Could have been seminary.

The larger your vocabulary, the more precise and specific you can be about, you know, stuff. I agree that you should gauge your audience and use appropriate terms, just so as not to be a dick to those unfortunates who don't have as subtle a comprehension of language. But, make no mistake: they're unfortunate. They're missing out - not just on nuanced meanings, but also on a lot of fabulous jokes.

In school most of your interaction comes from other kids. At work, from adults.

What meanest thou?


Perhaps modern vocabulary is smaller. Sentence structure is not simpler. Then again, if we go all the way back to our roots, the conjugations would get harder.

The flattening of language can even be seen across the same author's lifetime. Coase's 1937 paper, "The Theory of the Firm", almost seems Shakespearean. His newer works are much more in tune with my ear.

"Such an one as he" who reads James Fenimore Cooper is bound to discover all kinds of strange quirks.

The thing we can't feel is how many unfamiliar words James Fenimore Cooper would have encountered if he could have read Jonathan Franzen. I'm not sure a raw count of vocabulary is the best way to measure long-term language trends, but I know it pays to be suspicious of claims that language is getting worse over time, which reflect every generation's sociolinguistic attitude toward the ones that come after it.

You increase your vocabulary through reading. In the past (I'm sure in 1953) the population as a whole read more books for entertainment. Books, as opposed to other media, are long form and even at their shallowest deal with more complex ideas that require a greater vocabulary to explain. The more you read, the more words you have. I would bet that vocabulary size directly tracks the number of books read for enjoyment.

Modern newspapers articles are unadorned pieces of fluff. Think of the sportswriter Grantland Rice:

"Outlined against a blue-gray October sky the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as famine, pestilence, destruction and death. These are only aliases. Their real names are: Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds this afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down upon the bewildering panorama spread out upon the green plain below."

Today they write about the private peccadilloes of the players. Television has given us pictures and, too often, pointless commentary masquerading as news. Television, where the spit take has replaced wit, discourages thought beyond those thoughts associated with a steady stream of T & A.

Movies, now freed from censors, have replaced dialogue with graphic pictures.

As for "flatter, simpler" English, this is true, and is likely due to having large numbers of non-native English speakers in the population. Since you can't be sure that complex analogies or clever wordplay won't require tedious explanations, you avoid them. In my office, we're about 2/3 non-native English-speakers, so hallway chats and lunchroom conversations are kept simple. This frustrates the heck out of a couple of UK-born coworkers who try to use British wordplay and have it fall flat with people who aren't "native thinkers" in English.

OTOH, I love wordplay, analogies, and unusual, old-fashioned vocabulary, and use them at home and with friends all the time (including the large number of foreign-born ones - I don't mind explaining). My wife, who's from China, has been picking them up and using them...

Oh, yes! I promised myself not to shrink from advanced vocabulary and wordplay in front of my wife from Germany. I knew that using far more words than her classroom taught would, in the long run, improve her English dramatically, and it has. Today, she still has a thick accent, but can follow complex narratives and innuendo with ease.

I wouldn't count business jargon as vocabulary; it is thought destroying.

I suppose society doesn't value sesquipedalians anymore. The beauty of the English language as an art has given way to the revenue to be garnered from hoi polloi. Poplit like Harry Potter and Hunger Games add a few words to the vocabulary, mostly fictional references.

Some of the more artistic English literature is mind numbing as opposed to mind destroying. It challenges your thoughts too often to maintain your interest in the story. Reading Hawthorne or Cooper or Melville can be a little like repelling enemy littoral forces. Contemporaneous references that are no longer in common usage makes it more difficult to read.

" is thought destroying...mind numbing as opposed to mind destroying...."

"Contemporaneous references...makes it more difficult to read."

So, my friend, does a writer who is too lazy to hyphenate, never mind to make sure that his verbs agree with his subjects.

In my army days I noticed that the NCOs (sergeants) often had quite striking vocabularies (and I don't just mean colorful), with words they had picked up from manuals and in their own training.

On the historical front, we are also seeing a change in vocabulary due to changes in technology. As technologies change, some words become obsolete, and others enter the language. Then there is the further impact of brand names. The idea of brands is probably all less than 150 years old. I once read a review of a book that remarked on the increase since the 1970s in the use of brand names to help define characters. Ian Fleming was a notable early practitioner.

As for simpler English, I believe that we are losing some distinctions: which/that; larger and smaller in quantity vs more and fewer in number; since meaning because and not just signaling the passage of time; and like being both "similar to" to and "such as". However, sometimes these things go back aways. I was struck to discover that Shakespeare occasionally used "them" and "they" as singular, as I do to avoid "him or her".

I mostly agree with this. I have observed a reduction in adjectives and adverbs (people use the words "stuff and "shit" to describe everything) but an increase in the number of nouns and verbs. To Google is a specific type of search, and we have words to describe the huge array of digital communications.

" a flatter, simpler English": is that what's to blame for American prolixity?

A flatter, simpler English is very desirable if English is going to continue to be the most common language in international commerce and culture -- and it would seem to be strongly in our best interest for that to happen.

- "Plus schools are less likely to make you memorize long, classic poems, which is another good way of building vocabulary."

A 17-22 year old in the lower income bracket in the 50s is quite unlikely to have been in school, memorizing poems. They'd have been in the workforce (which is the point of the quoted paragraph.)

If you are seeking an economic cause for simpler English look to a larger population and more specialization among occupations.

Ask the average man on the street to define marginal utility or hedonic pricing. I am sure he will have no idea. But if he happens to be a computer programmer and speaks about accessibility guidelines or rapid prototyping you will probably be just as lost.

We are entering an age where each of us has a specialized vocabulary but to talk to each other we need to make things simpler. That explains why the Oxford dictionary keeps growing while the number of words you see in an average publication shrinks.

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