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Is Your Vocabulary Worse Than Your Ancestors’?

Is Your Vocabulary Worse Than Your Ancestors’?

“Are Americans more intelligent than a few decades ago, or less intelligent?”

Jean M. Twenge, W. Keith Campbell, and Ryne A. Sherman asked this question in their 2019 paper, “Declines in Vocabulary Among American Adults Within Levels of Educational Attainment, 1974–2016.”

To answer one angle of this inquiry, they examined American’s vocabulary over the last several decades. Their conclusion?

Americans across all levels of educational attainment have become less able to correctly answer the questions on a standard test of vocabulary. Increased educational attainment has not led to increased verbal ability. Instead, those with higher ability have steadily obtained more education. As a result, the average vocabulary of an American college graduate is now lower than in the past.

Is Your Vocabulary Worse Than Your Ancestors’?The researchers posit several reasons for this possible decline (which, for college graduates, amounts to more than half a standard deviation), including less time spent reading in high school.

I’m inclined to agree with this particular reason, but I would add that the level of English used in the media people are consuming seems to have dropped.

For example, consider the journalist and literary critic H. L. Mencken. As Darryl G. Hart writes, Mencken (despite having some controversial personal and political opinions) was popular with “the younger generation” in 1920s America. According to one article at the time, “every flapper” made sure to be seen carrying an issue of his magazine, The American Mercury. But in the age of TikTok, it’s hard to imagine that anyone who wrote in Mencken’s style could make a splash among today’s youth. One scholar points out that Mencken often used words like antinomian, mountebank, poltroon, popinjays, and tatterdemalion. Occasionally, he scattered in such gems as aurochs, brummagem, catchpolls, fly-blown, fustian, harridan, mudsills, peruna, tinpot, and usufructs. I certainly don’t know what half those words mean.

Another example is H. P. Lovecraft, the celebrated horror writer. It’s important to remember that Lovecraft worked in pulp fiction, a genre meant for the masses. In that context, it’s amazing how intricate and difficult his language was. Take this eerie description in his novella The Shadow over Innsmouth:

Among these reliefs were fabulous monsters of abhorrent grotesqueness and malignity—half ichthyic and half batrachian in suggestion—which one could not dissociate from a certain haunting and uncomfortable sense of pseudo-memory, as if they called up some image from deep cells and tissues whose retentive functions are wholly primal and awesomely ancestral.

What piece of popular fiction nowadays sounds anything like that?

Mencken and Lovecraft didn’t just use more advanced vocabularies than authors in their fields do nowadays. They had also developed highly distinctive ways of writing. How many journalists today have a style anywhere near as unmistakable as Mencken’s?

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of less formal vocabulary here and there. Theodore Roosevelt was famously fond of the word bully, which he used in much the same way as modern Americans use awesome. And as Mencken recognized, sometimes such a simple little word is the best one available. When reviewing a book he adored, Mencken remarks: “The orthodox critical vocabulary doesn’t do justice to it. One must borrow from the vulgar argot of Presidents and say that it is ‘bully.’” But overall, Roosevelt was a sophisticated wordsmith. He penned around 35 volumes, and his biographer, Edmund Morris, once apparently declared, “I wonder if you Yanks will ever have another president who can write like this.”

Compare this to 21st-century standards of political rhetoric. Journalist Susan Jacoby complained in 2008 that Eisenhower sounds like Demosthenes compared to George W. Bush. But Bush sounds like Cicero compared to Joe Biden and his infamous “gaffes.”

So, how to stave off the linguistic decline?

Adjusting our media diet in the direction of great literature might help. If the complexity of popular writing has indeed fallen over the past century, it may be advisable to read older texts instead of more recent ones—when it’s not important for our reading to be up to date, that is.

Even those of us who embody the English language’s deterioration shouldn’t get discouraged. Perhaps all we need is more time spent with the greats of literature.

Image credit: Pexels

Simon Maass
Simon Maass

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  • Avatar
    Richard Cerbo
    June 24, 2024, 4:55 pm

    We loved mencken, and yes, there is a devolving of the written word, and a less eloquent national narrative, articulated for an increasingly dumbed down public discourse. Word study has been replaced with awful rap music, and the concern with sneakers and cell phones….

  • Avatar
    JD Stone
    June 24, 2024, 6:47 pm

    This is a “piss-poor” article. Times change and thankfully we advance. Our dialog should be proficient, not pompous.

    • Avatar
      Tony Costsnzo@JD Stone
      June 24, 2024, 7:30 pm

      Tru! So sorry I spelled that wrong. I swear it was on purpose! So, true. That’s what I meant to say originally.

  • Avatar
    June 25, 2024, 7:50 pm

    I just wrote a short essay on this very topic. After my son read "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea" this year in school, I couldn't help but notice how his friends would not have understood a tenth of the content. Paragraph after paragraph of rich descriptions included biology, philosophy, oceanography, geology, geography and references to history that thankfully my son has already learned. But his friends would have been bored stiff. One of them can't find Africa on a globe. Another can't read one paragraph. Their vocabulary is very limited. In less than a decade, they will be voting. God help us.

  • Avatar
    Jennifer Eaves
    June 26, 2024, 12:54 pm

    Thank you for yet another pertinent article.
    Ugh. The reality is depressing.
    This is a topic about which I engage in debates frequently.
    I am shocked that so many people immediately go to an argument about how their ancestors had such little access to “education,” by which they mean schooling.
    THAT is never the focal point of my perspective. I tend to think about this: reading and self educating. Even if one is just reading for entertainment, he or she is building vocabulary and growing his or her thoughts in the process.
    Though we have mandated schooling and young people spend more time in school buildings than many in previous generations, we have lost instead of gaining.
    If we can teach people to read and to study, they will be able to learn anything. Getting them excited and curious about learning is my passion in life. Is there hope for this? Can we move beyond the dumb downed state in which we find ourselves today? It seems that we are moving ever more rapidly towards greater stupidity and denying it all along the way.

  • Avatar
    July 2, 2024, 11:16 am

    I wonder if this is a result of educational decline, or a decline that happens gradually to individuals throughout their lives as a result of exposure to the surrounding culture. The author cites Joe Biden and George W. Bush as examples of stunted vocabulary. But they were educated in the 1940s through the 60s, when presumably educational standards were better. Or did they used to speak better in their youth, then decline as they got older?


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