Casting About for Just the Right Word

thesaurusOK, now I know why I frequently struggle to come up with just the right word: There are too damn many words to choose from …

The English language is now approaching one million words! That’s nearly four times the number of words in Spanish and ten times the number in French. In this Baltimore Sun article, reporter Stevenson Swanson interviews Paul Payack, owner of Global Language Monitor.

Using mathematical formulas, Payack tracks new words as they crop up in databases of printed materials and on the Internet. If the number of citations reaches a critical mass, he adds the word to his master lexicon, which he compiled by assembling the word lists of about a dozen major English dictionaries, such as the Oxford English and Merriam-Webster’s.

Payack believes the creation of words has sped up in recent decades in part because of the rapid growth in the number of people who speak English as either a first or second language. He puts the number at 1.35 billion.

But the large size of the language isn’t really why I find myself casting about for the right word.

The casting about is a symptom of the curse of having a good vocabulary and poor recall. The problem is not that there are too many words in the language to choose from — it’s that there are too many words I know to choose from.

Here is what happens to me:

  • I’ll think of a commonly used word first.
  • But then, before I use the word, I’ll think there is another word I can substitute that will express the meaning I’m hoping to convey with more precision.
  • I try to think of that word — and come up empty.

This problem is particularly vexing when I’m talking to someone face to face or on the phone. It causes embarrassing pauses and ultimately self-consciousness. (No wonder I’m Quiet.) Sometimes the person I’m talking to will even continue or finish my sentence for me.

The ironic thing is that in most cases the commonly used word would serve my purpose just fine. I don’t want to be more formal in my use of the language than necessary; I don’t want to come across as stuffy — especially in face to face situations.

This casting about is also a problem in my work. Although one might think using a big vocabulary is a virtue in technical writing, it is not. One of the keys in technical writing is consistent word usage. This isn’t a great example, but if the software I’m documenting refers to a particular piece of geometry a “block”, I would run the risk of confusing readers if I were to refer to it sometimes as a block and other times as a rectangle. (They’re probably confused enough already.)

Anyone out there share the curse of having a good vocabulary and poor recall? Have you come up with any ways to deal with it? If so, please share in the comments.

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3 comments so far

  1. Gina on

    If I may be so bold as to be the first one to comment yet again..

    I am not cursed with a good vocabulary, though I greatly admire people who are, and I take notes. I try to work in new words when I learn them, though, in f2f’s, eloquence usually eludes me… (Poor recall, as well? Self-consciousness? Don’t know what that’s about. I think I assume people are bored.) ..unless, I’m either really comfortable and/or under the influence. In the latter case, I’m probably a lot less articulate than I believe myself to be. But, entertaining.

    I think that’s why I prefer writing.. I have time to choose the right words (and look them up, if I need to). No blanking out. But, I think more than a broad vocabulary, I am really drawn to original way things are phrased, especially if it’s with humor.

    Louis was marveling recently about how the internet is also changing our language..for example, “google” is now a verb. And the video game influence.. my kids don’t call for a ‘time-out”, but a “pause”, if they need to stop the (real-life) action. It also seems that, as a culture, we’ve come to rely on providing visual replays rather than words to convey descriptions.. you know, “He was all like… (act out content)”.

    Anyway, no, I don’t quite know how to deal with that, though, I too, would like to learn. Typing is time-consuming.

  2. Kani on

    Well, I think I have a fairly good vocabulary, and sometimes TOO good a memory…but as far as word recall goes, here’s what I sometimes do: I will use one word, then “pause” the conversation, take a breath and explain that I’m trying to find just the right word, scan my thesaurus memory cells, and voila. It often works.

    I also enjoy using new words, some of them invented. For example, when my daughter was very young, she would call a very bad event a “disastrophe,” a word that I have found to be very apropos, even 20 years later.

  3. QC on

    @Kani:
    “Disastrophe” , heh heh, yes I remember.

    I don’t know if your pause technique will work for me. My brain locks up when confronted with the task of scanning the memory cells.

    In rethinking this issue it seems a bigger problem than individual word recall for me in conversation is inability to think “on my feet”. It all stems from self-consciousness. It’s already there when I start speaking, and it increases when I have trouble selecting an individual word.

    @Gina:
    I prefer writing as well … but yes it does take a lot of time.

    Your point about original phrasing is well taken. That’s the ability to “turn a phrase” — a key to success for a (non-technical) writer.

    I think you’re too modest in your assessment of the broadness of your vocabulary.


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