The Importance of Vocabulary
July 22, 2022
Image credits: Geoff McFetridge
We make sense of our reality through the stories we tell ourselves. And it shrinks or expands in proportion to how we build and use our vocabulary over time.

I believe this to be true now more than ever because we live in a time wherein the proliferation of information has exponentially expanded our vocabulary.

Not just that, it has multiplied the contexts in which we use it. It is like a double-edged sword as it does not give us enough time or space to critically reflect on its meaning and long-term consequences.

In general, vocabulary is a collection of words used in a particular language or subject. But here, I'm referring to it in the context of the words that represent a complex idea in the popular English language.

The advantage of having a rich vocabulary is that it allows us to store, retrieve and express complex abstract ideas. For example, since we understand time in terms of resource (or money), we use expressions like,

"Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life."

Is time limited? Is it possible to waste it? Not in the absolute sense.

Michael Reddy's Conduit Metaphor explains why we use linguistic expressions like the above. It also explains how words (usually metaphorical concepts) can hide many aspects of our experiences.

Ideas (or meanings) are objects.
Linguistic expressions are containers.
Communication is sending.

When we speak or write about something, we put ideas (Objects) into words (containers) and express them (along a conduit) to a listener or reader who takes out the ideas/objects from the words/containers.

That is how we make sense of reality using vocabulary, but it's not limited to this.

Let's look at how we use vocabulary to skip situations that require critical thinking, using an analogy of a file system on a computer.

When we partition a file system, it exists as one continuous block of free space. New files are placed anywhere on the disk, and parts of large files are grouped in a sequence.

With time, as several files are modified or deleted, new free spaces get created. And when a new file is added, parts of it are added in these free spaces. When a file is accessed, the process slows down as it has to pull up parts of that file from different places instead of a single place.

This process leads to fragmentation, and it happens because the system's goal is to optimise free spaces on the disk. This problem is solved using a defragmentation utility that rearranges and integrates all the fragmented free space to keep files in their correct sequence.

Similarly, we frequently use words as labels to associate complex ideas or experiences that are difficult to confront as it is.

We all take this mental shortcut to overcome the gaps in our thinking, or on the extreme, use it to avoid pain and fear. We cannot avoid using labels, but we can avoid using the ones that have not gone through reflection or analysis.

In my view, labels are not just words that convey some simple meaning but are denser container terms that pack highly contextual and subjective ideas. Also, how we frame labels is as important as what labels we know, understand and use.

Good framing is based on the ability to ask good questions, and it can be learnt just like any other craft or skill. The only prerequisite is the ability to focus, be honest and have an incessant desire to find answers.

Reading and writing have been some of the best ways for me to learn the art of framing. It has helped me build a richer vocabulary and witness my inner monologues from a third-person point of view.  

Here's an illustration of a parable from India that summarises this essay perfectly:

Image credits: Sketchplanations