As a writer and editor, my vocabulary skills are fairly well-developed. However, I wouldn’t say they were absolutely at the pinnacle of achievement. I haven’t got the best vocabulary in the world, and I doubt anyone will till such time as Stephen Fry is still alive and kicking. The man’s repertoire and eloquence is staggering.
I would say that my vocabulary was moderately good from rather a young age, say from my burgeoning teenage years. I read quite a bit back then, although it was mostly novels. Nowadays, I have more of an eclectic reading palette: history, biographies, philosophy, and more. Each book adds another voice to my head, or polishes off a dusty facet from an existing one. Ultimately, reading is what made me a writer.
Now that I have done trumpeting my abilities, [and strongly resisting the urge to add disclaimers everywhere] I recall a conversation I had with a colleague recently. He was asking how one was supposed to know how to correctly pronounce words, if they were new to him. He then went into a tirade about how complicated English was. Before I could reply, another colleague joined us, and she caught the tail end of the tirade. She mostly agreed, because as an aspiring writer herself, she felt double the pressure to be word perfect each time.
She narrated an instance where her ex-boyfriend mocked her for mispronouncing a word. She learned speedily enough that pronunciation was everything. Much like I had thought, many years previously.
When I was at school, I had a friend who was incredibly smart. When I say ‘smart’, I mean genius-level. She topped at everything she did: school work, ballet, and art are a few of the fields I can actually recall. I was a shy kid, with positive vibes and confused at best. I was intelligent, and I occasionally still show sparks of this mystical ability, but overall I spent more time confused than otherwise. I didn’t have her staggering vocabulary, but she made me feel awful if I ventured to ask for explanations of the big words she used. I learned to sew my mouth shut, because mockery was hardly a desirable outcome for a preteen.
It took me years to grow out of that insecurity, although she wasn’t the first or the last person to make me feel inadequate for simply not knowing something. Today, I stand a very different person altogether, and I have learned to be proud of being able to ask if I don’t know something. Because it means I have grown, and I am human.
I didn’t say all of this to my colleagues though, even as the thoughts flashed in my mind. I did however say that it was ok not to know all the words; or to mispronounce them. Language is a vehicle for communication, and providing the person in front understands what you mean, your words are successful. That’s the most important point.
Secondly, mispronouncing a word, but using it correctly, means you understands its import. Also, it means that you learned it while reading. A habit usually adopted by intelligent people.
Thirdly, most linguists and passionate lovers of language will say that language continuously evolves. It is only idiotic prescriptivists that nitpick flaws.
Finally, and on a more philosophical train of thought, no one is meant to be invincible or perfect. If we didn’t make mistakes, we would hardly be human would we?