Coffee with Mimi: Words matter and we use them a lot

Published 9:00 am Saturday, March 6, 2021

Words matter. An acquaintance once, after spending time with my large and extended family, commented that the room was filled with so many words, all the time, and often quite loudly. I can’t deny it, but wondered if the actual words were useful, or just abundant. What variety and merit were the words? Was there proper usage in all that was uttered? Did the words lead to any successful communication?

I turned to my readiest source of information, a Google search, and admittedly entered only a cursory search command. It is likely there would be some divergence of opinion, but the ranges in numbers would indicate this source has probably covered the bases.

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To begin with, certainly, there surely is a difference in the age of the subject speaker, but that was not of concern to this source. I’m good with that for the purposes of this discussion.

I mean, we can all agree that a 3-year-old would be reasonably considered a beginner speaker with her vocabulary of 200 or more words. She likely can string together three or four words in a sentence and you can definitely get her message. As a parent of three children who were at one time three years old, I get it, or got it.

However, unless English is his second language, a working knowledge of 250 – 500 words should be in the rear-view mirror in short order. By the time a kiddo gets to kindergarten, he is carrying around 2,100 – 2,200 words in his arsenal. We may not appreciate the selection, but they are available.

With such a rapid acquisition of material, one can see it isn’t too long before the clever child is at the level of advanced language user counting between 4,000 and 10,000 words tucked away in that active brain. At that point – 10,000 words – a person is considered fluent and native speaking.

All that being said, adults use, on average, about 5,000 different words a day in general communication; casual conversation, written notes, emails.

Of course, this does not include technical language. You know, the jargon associated with, say, computer systems repair. Some of those words may seem like normal words, but when strung together in one ridiculously long sentence of instructions when the untangling of the performance of my brand-new laptop is hanging in the balance …

Speakers would do well to remember that a conversation is two sided and sometimes one side of the duo doesn’t have the same understanding of the words as the other partner even if the same 5,000 words are on the table.

An average adult may use 5,000 different words a day, but the average adult probably knows about 20,000 words. Some sources count as many as 40,000 different words in the knowledge base of an educated person. Define educated – not going there.

It’s all in what you do with your words. My dad was one of the most intellectual individuals I have ever known. He was very precise with words.

I will never forget being admonished by him when I was, in his estimation, sloppy with a particular phrase.

For example, a common duty among folks in the non-profit world is trying to find money for projects. There are multitudes of possibilities, including corporate, governmental, and private foundation givers. The path to accessing those funds is through grants.

I’m going to write a grant, I say. Seriously, he says. Yes, I reply. No, you are going to apply for a grant, corrects he. Point taken.

I just finished a book by Bill Bryson about the origin and development of the English language. It was laugh out loud hilarious at times. Words used today have often traveled wild and crazy paths from origin to current usage. What was meant in 1473, may have been logical in 1473. But, today…

Going shopping? The sign on the door says not to come in if you have a temperature. Golly, if you don’t have a temperature, you are most certainly in more trouble than being out of milk.

Applying for life insurance? Do you have a heart condition? Yes, of course, and darn happy to have it. Please elaborate.

Maybe I am splitting hairs, (now from where does THAT nugget originate), but the specter of my father looms large. Actually, I couldn’t let that phrase go unstudied.

“Splitting hairs” is a delightful, and totally nonsensical phrase now that I know, originating in 17th Century Britain.

In the Middle Ages, and hanging on into the Elizabethan Age apparently, it was thought that a single human hair was so thin and fine, it would be a waste of time to attempt to split it. And the need for a split human hair was…no clue and not looking further. Not a good use of my time, there is the crying need for world peace and other pressing domestic matters to be addressed.

Just for the record, linguists have determined there is no statistical difference in the number of words average women and average men speak in a normal day. My research does not note the quality of the selection by either.