This is the blessing and the curse of being “the word guy.” People naturally assume that I’ve got the entire dictionary memorized from cover to cover, and while some can live contentedly with that belief, others feel the need to call me out on it.
More words followed in rapid succession. Conflagration. Languid. Defenestrate. Umbrage. As I offered definition after definition, he became more and more annoyed and began to pounce on any of my descriptions that were inexact or imprecise. As if that were some sort of victory.
For the record, I am a word guy, I am not the word guy. I know the words that I know, and I enjoy learning new ones, but I am not the oracle of the dictionary. I am fallible.
For example, for the longest time, I had assigned the definition of recalcitrant (hard to deal with, disobedient) to the word reticent (reluctant or restrained). Even now when I want to use either of those words, I need to pause and make sure I’m saying what I mean. See? The words and their definitions are not all at my fingertips or on the tip of my tongue.
It’s impossible to get an accurate figure, but simple math suggests that there are, at the very least, 250,000 distinct English words, excluding inflections, and words from technical and regional vocabulary. That being the case, I’d say anyone who’s got a vocabulary consisting of more than grunts and squawks is doing all right.
By Steve Boudreault