Friday, 31 October 2014

On Libraries and Words

Last week I mentioned that Marcia would be cutting a birthday cake. Well, this is the cake . . .

. . . and here is Marcia cutting it.

The event was to celebrate the fortieth birthday of the new (as it then was) Kingsridge Library and Marcia had been asked to attend, to chat to some of her readers and, as you have seen, to cut the cake.

Just inside the door was a display of Marcia's books.
Before wielding the knife she spoke of her commitment to libraries because (and this is so strange) her family rarely read books. Her exposure to books was, therefore, limited. Then she was taken into the Children’s Section of the Bristol Central Library. ‘It was like going to heaven,’ she said. ‘All these books, shelves and shelves of books. And then, to make matters even better, I found that through another door there were even more books – books for adults to read.’

She spent the next few years working her way along those shelves – trying all sorts of authors and genres – and reading all the time. From that moment onwards whenever she was asked what she wanted for a present the answer was always the same: a book.

Everyone was greeted and offered a cup of tea Maria Johnson,
the Library Manager.
She was still reading when she and I met about twenty-five years after that momentous moment (is that tautology?) in the Bristol Central Library and she continued to read until, eventually, I nagged hard enough to make her start writing. Indeed, and I say this knowing she will deny it, she is the best read person I have ever met. The list of authors or both prose and poetry from whom she can quote seems endless and her vocabulary is incredible.

Which leads me on to think about what we mean by that word ‘vocabulary’. We each of us have different vocabularies when you stop to think about it. There is the one we use when we are listening or reading – you could call this the ‘passive’ vocabulary and consists of all the words we understand. Most native English speakers will have a passive vocabulary of between 20,000 and 35,000 words. Then there are two ‘active’ vocabularies: one we use when we speak and one when we write (although with some people these two are the same).

This is a large and spacious library with a wide range of facilities.
The big difference between speaking and writing is that the first is ephemeral and the second permanent. That means we are more likely to be adventurous and use words whose meanings we are not entirely sure we understand in speech than we are when writing. It seems that most of us use somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 when we are talking but few use more than 8,000 when they are writing.

Those facilities include this hi-tech corner.
This is fine in every day use but people who write for a living have to do everything they can to be sure that they do not bore their readers by becoming repetitive and so we see that many professional writers have ‘active’ vocabularies that almost equal their ‘passive’ vocabulary and that this is often at the upper range of what is considered normal. This is not all that surprising: many of us use thesauri to find a word we want and that inevitably increases our vocabulary. Words matter more to us than to most: they are, after all, the tools of our trade. Thus a quick dip into a dictionary to check on a definition can result in a couple of hours of valuable work time ‘lost’ as the quick dip turns into a long browse. “It’s all on account of how one thing leads on to another” (to quote – or possibly misquote – from The Specialist by that great American actor, vaudevillian and writer, Charles Sale).

Having said all that, it seems that the average person for whom English is a first language has an ‘active’ vocabulary of about only seven thousand words. Please don;t ask me how people come to these statistics because I really don’t know. If you are interested in the size of your ‘passive’ vocabulary take a trip to

Before I leave you, will you please all join me in wishing Keith Giles (whose wife, Jeanne, often leaves comments here) many happy returns of the day. Marcia and I both hope you have a wonderful time, Keith and that you will be able to enjoy many more in the years to come.

Here we have a retired racing greyhound who enjoys the name of Golem. In Jewish folklore, this is the name given to some animated being magically created out of inanimate materials. Statuettes of a Golem (usually made out of clay but sometimes carved from stone) are somewhat ill-formed but bvaguely human figures. When he wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Tolkein named one of his characters after this anthropomorphic being but changed it slightly to Gollum.

Finally: Marcia Willett's Dartmouth was published yesterday. For details of how you can buy it (assuming you want to, of course) please click here.