Darby and Joan

wordsmith [n]: a person who works with words.

I'm become somewhat of a wordsmith; I've developed a love of words and a passion for using them; especially words that take a little more effort to work into a conversation. I'd say that, since college, my vocabulary has increased exponentially [see, I did it right there]. The beautiful thing about the English language is that we have so many words at our discretion to use. So why don't people make the extra effort to use a few of them? The usual excuse is that people don't want to seem stuck-up. I think that's a cop out. I can think of two main reasons why people don't like new words:

1) It's hard work. You can't just start using a new word. You have to find out what it means, then figure out how to use it and work it into a conversation. And the bigger reason . . .

2) The fear of looking stupid. As exhilarating as it is to use a new word, it's frightening to mess it up. Those familiar with the TV show Friends can see Joey standing there saying to himself, "Supposably? Supposably!" The risk not seeming to be worth the reward, we hold back and choose to stay at the level where we're at.

It saddens me to think that we can't continue to learn and excel without fearing chastisement from other people. Just because you want to speak and write well doesn't mean you think you're superior to others [I've listened to and read material by people who have incredible vocabularies but are the scum of the earth]. Why should we let other people's attitudes determine what we can be? It's junior high peer pressure all over again. So I want to challenge us all to become wordsmiths. Discover new words or phrases and use them in everyday language. I make it a point, while teaching kids, to always use a word that I have to define for them. I'm not saying it's easy, but here are a few tips for making it happen in your speech:

1) Read. More than the sports page. Read books with no pictures. Read books by authors who are genuine wordsmiths. And when you come across a word you don't know, look it up.

2) Write. Blogging has certainly helped my vocabulary grow. I don't want to use the same words over and over and over and over again, so I'm always looking for new words. Write emails to people and deliberately work in words you might not normally use.

3) Listen to people smarter than you. Whether at work or church [or at home?], hang around people who know how to use those big words. Maybe tune into NPR or download a podcast. Even if you don't agree with the content, you can learn something about your language.

4) Word of the day. There's more than just toilet paper and calendars out there that have a word of the day. I receive a daily email from Merriam-Webster with a word of the day.

For instance, today's vocabulary phrase from my Merriam Webster email is "Darby and Joan." Here's the definition and the accompanying explanation:

[n] a happily married usually elderly couple

"Old Darby, with Joan by his side, / You've often regarded with wonder: / He's dropsical, she is sore-eyed, / Yet they're never happy asunder." Thus ran the lines of a poem published in 1735 under the title "The Joys of Love Never Forgot: A Song." By the mid-1700s, the elderly couple introduced in that poem had become symbolic of devoted couples.

I did an informal survey around this place of people between the ages of fifty and eighty. I asked them if they knew this phrase and not one of them has heard it used before. If they don't know what it means, you know that no one under fifty knows it. So now that you have some new words, see where you can use them.

Who are the "Darby and Joan" in your life? Let them know or tell other people about them. And after you refer to them as "D&J," and the person you're speaking with says, "Excuse me?" Let them know what the phrase means. This way we all get smarter, using the mass of goo between our ears.

And then we talk real gooder too.

*One of the most interesting messages I heard on this topic was by Richard Allen Farmer and entitled, "Making the Mummies Dance." It's available for purchase on the Willow Creek Association website.