• Monthly Archives: December 2018

Vocabulary as an Indicator of Intelligence

December 30, 2018

As is his custom, Y-H-B was sitting in his Sunday morning restaurant in Manchester Center, Vermont, “Up for Breakfast,” talking to one of the waitresses, a middle-aged woman who grew up in Rhode Island and now lives in Bennington, Vt. We were engaging in the usual early breakfast banter when the waitress (Gwen), a very nice and well-spoken lady, used the word potpourri to refer to a miscellaneous collection of implements in the restaurant. I immediately made note of this usage as a sign of higher-than-expected intelligence and silently congratulated Gwen for using this word.

While it is common for children in every country to be urged to expand their vocabulary in preparation for higher and higher schooling, in America it is not common for ordinary speakers to use high-style words like potpourri (a French borrowing) unless the context calls for their special use. In general, speech in America between people of different social classes and professions rarely goes beyond the boundaries of common vocabulary, although doctors and dentists are well-known for gratuitously engaging in special vocabulary out of habit instead of using common words to describe medical conditions.

Word choice as a stylistic matter is not merely facultative: it is always a sign of intelligence and necessarily has the effect of affecting one’s general evaluation of one’s interlocutors.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Asserting One’s Bona Fides

December 5, 2018

In contemporary American English, speakers are constantly asserting their good faith to their interlocutors by interpolating (or adding, or prefacing) the phrase “to be honest” as if to assure them that what they saying is valid or authentic, thereby elevating their bona fides as far as the authenticity of their utterances is concerned. However, almost without exception, there is no patent need for this phrase because the speaker’s sincerity or the accuracy of the information being conveyed is never in question.

This is yet another instance when Americans resort to utterly otiose verbal warrants in speech in order to prevent their interlocutors from so much as suspecting that what is being said fails to represents the speaker’s true thoughts. Media chatter of all kinds, because of its ubiquity and pervasiveness, only exacerbates the situation by providing a typically inauthentic model of ordinary speech.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO