Make that 20,001

I enjoy reading. I enjoy writing. I enjoy how words are used by different authors. I’m always inspired when I pick up a book and find the narrative so easy to follow. Some authors just have the knack. As I mentioned in one blog post I wrote in May 2012, I’ve given up on a book on very few occasions just because I found the text such hard going.

I guess we use the same words day in, day out. And that got me thinking, in light of what happened yesterday. It seems that most English speakers have an active vocabulary (words they use regularly) of about 20-25,000.

Well, mine increased by ONE yesterday!

I’ve just completed an excellent biography of American Civil War General (and 18th POTUS) Ulysses S Grant. And there, on page 501 (of 718) I came across a word I’d never seen before and had no idea of its meaning.

Eleemosynary? Whatever does that refer to? It doesn’t roll off the tongue.

This was the context, describing Grant’s attempts (as President) to reform the Interior Department’s management of Indian relations, by putting Quakers in charge in about half of the western agencies: On these reservations the Indians would govern themselves, albeit with advice and instruction in the ways of white civilization from the Quakers and others of an educational and eleemosynary bent.

I had to reach for the dictionary.

Pretentious? Maybe. I posted a comment on Facebook and one of my friends mentioned that he’d used the adjective in an essay written when he was in high school. And was marked down for doing so!

Words also change in usage over time, or between different ‘branches’ of the English language. For anyone interested in the language I can’t recommend too highly David Crystal’s The Stories of English.

I came across an interesting difference in Brands’s biography of Grant. He was actually quoting from a letter that Grant had written about politicians in the South. He used the word irresponsible.

In the strict sense we use this word adjectivally of a person, attitude, or action not showing a proper sense of responsibility. But in modern British usage it’s perhaps more commonly used to describe a person or action as reckless, rash, careless, thoughtless, incautious, unwise, imprudent, ill-advised, ill-considered, injudicious, misguided, heedless, unheeding, inattentive, hasty, overhasty, precipitate, precipitous, wild, foolhardy, impetuous, impulsive, daredevil, devil-may-care, hot-headed, negligent, delinquent, neglectful, or remiss.

But the late 19th century usage (in the United States) and perhaps still today describes someone not answerable to higher authority (from the Merriam-Webster dictionary).

I doubt I’ll be using eleemosynary any time soon in my writing or conversation; it’s probably not even a party stopper. But, as I approach my 70th birthday, who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?


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