Can a Larger Vocabulary Lead to a Better Life?
People who know more words make more money, but a strong vocabulary may be worth more than its weight in gold
Have you ever accidentally bought a self-improvement book? Not “accidentally”, as you might say when a nosy houseguest goes spelunking through your bookshelves and picks out Dale Carnegie’s name from the spines, but through genuine ignorance that inside this Holocaust survivor biography or tidying-up manual there lay carefully-worded advice about how to live well? Well, you know, “don’t judge a book by its cover” wasn’t only meant to be taken figuratively. Self-help can catch you where you least expect it—even in a workbook for school kids trying to fatten up their English essays. As Norman Lewis writes in Word Power Made Easy:
The more extensive your vocabulary, the better your chances for success, other things being equal—success in attaining your educational goals, success in moving ahead in your business or professional career, success in achieving your intellectual potential. […] When you have finished working with this book, you will no longer be the same person. You can’t be.
Weighty claims, but ones that Lewis purports to be able to back up. He mentions a study carried out by the Human Engineering Laboratory that found the participants who scored the highest on a vocabulary test were also the highest-earning; another in which incoming freshmen at the University of Illinois were tested on their vocabulary and their results proved reliable predictors of their academic success throughout their degrees. His explanation for this is loosely linked to the theory of linguistic relativity, also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which suggests that the language a person speaks significantly impacts their thought processes. Over a century since it was developed, it remains just a theory, although some research exists to support it. Some of the most well-known examples come from the work of Lera Boroditsky, who has shown, among other things, that your mother tongue may influence how you conceptualise the passage of time—Mandarin speakers, for instance, reportedly think about it vertically rather than horizontally.
So having a bigger vocabulary means you can think … bigger? Perhaps. The aim of Lewis’s book is not to help its readers “sound smarter”—it’s to familiarise us with “the multitudinous and fascinating phenomena of human existence for which words are, obviously, only the verbal descriptions.” Theologian David Tracy put it this way: “[W]e do not first experience or understand some reality and then find words to name that understanding. We understand through the languages available to us.” The discovery of a new word can be the discovery that some abstract idea, habit, or style is considered “a thing”, common enough for other humans to have given it a name. Ever heard of a misodoctakleidist before? It’s someone who can play the piano but hates to practise. What, you thought you were the only one?
Perhaps fittingly, multiple studies have shown that vocabulary size correlates positively with intelligence, a fact that Lewis also takes care to mention. But he stops short of asking the obvious question: does knowing more words make you smarter, or is it just that someone with a higher IQ finds it easier to retain the flowery words they’ve run across throughout their lifetime? Psychologists Robert Sternberg and Janet Powell take the latter view, asserting that a larger vocabulary is a by-product of strong “contextual acquisition skills”, or the ability to judge, for example, a word’s meaning based on how it is used in a sentence. Rote-learning a litany of Greek and Latin derivations, it could be argued, won’t make up for a lack of talent (if you believe in that sort of thing).
Another factor that Lewis quite conspicuously neglects to mention is socioeconomic class. Research presented in the 1990s found that children from high-income families heard an average of 45 million words spoken by the age of three, whereas children living below the poverty line heard only 13 million words in the same timeframe. Since socioeconomic background is related to a number of other variables that can influence a pupil’s academic performance, it seems naïve to say that a broader vocabulary automatically equals better grades. Same goes for earnings—knowing the meaning of the phrase “scion of a wealthy family” is clearly not as important as being one.
Author Rudolf Flesch attacked this kind of specious reasoning all the way back in 1949. “It’s simply the good old Horatio Alger formula turned cultural: from intellectual rags to material riches,” he wrote, referring to the American writer whose children’s novels stoked the flames of the 19th-century preoccupation with meritocracy. Flesch was rather ahead of his time in that he described to this then-burgeoning movement as an “industry”, alluding to contemporaries of his who had made fortunes off of the lofty promises, not dissimilar to Lewis’s, contained within their vocabulary-building books. These days, not only do we still have those books, but there’s a kajillion-and-one apps for that, too.
If language is a trowel and brush with which to uncover the world around us, then it must also help us to understand our own inner lives.
So maybe a thesaurus isn’t the only thing separating you from Forbes’ Top 100. But maybe there’s more to life than money (maybe). If language is a trowel and brush with which to uncover the world around us, then it must also help us to understand our own inner lives, making it easier to make more refined distinctions between the feelings we experience and express our wants and needs with better precision. There’s evidence to support this — one 1999 study suggested that mothers with stronger language skills better equipped their children to regulate their emotions when confronted with frustrating situations. Vocabulary might make you more sensitive to what others are feeling, too, as some research reveals that adults with larger vocabularies exhibit higher levels of emotional intelligence.
Words make the world a little less mysterious, a little less scary. Sufferers of lesser-known health disorders often talk about the sense of relief they experienced upon discovering that their affliction had a name. In a beautiful and enlightening retrospection on grappling with a rare and eventually fatal blood disease, linguist Suzanne Fleischman writes about the role that acquiring an in-depth medical vocabulary played in coming to terms not only with what was taking place in her body, but with the social ramifications of chronic illness and the shift in her identity that came along with it. And, as we well know, language can have a palliative effect on a community in crisis— think of the hordes of coinages we’ve seen emerge over the past year or so, the way we pore over them with glee, despite the grim reality they represent. Being paralytic in front of your smartphone screen, unable to tear your gaze from the endless stream of bad news, is made just that little bit easier by the knowledge that you’re not the only one doing it: you can’t be, because The Oxford English Dictionary included doomscrolling in its 2020 end-of-year report. Adam named the beasts; we name ours. It may not fill our bank accounts, but we’re nonetheless richer for it.