One of the oddities of the lexicon–that is, the set of words that you know–is that you keep learning it for pretty much your entire life. This is quite different from anything else that you know about your native language: you know almost everything that you will ever know about the phonology and syntax of your language quite early in your childhood. In contrast, learning new words can continue to your dying day.
Of course, the rate of learning new words changes over the course of the lifespan. Young toddlers may learn fewer than 5 words a month; between the ages of 2 and 6 years, they’re probably learning more like 30 words a month. When you enter school, the range of semantic classes that the child is learning shifts in the direction of abstract words, from the concrete ones that formed most of their vocabulary acquisition up to that point. If you go to college (la fac in French), you will probably see another spurt in your learning of new words; by the time you finish it, the typical person will know most of the vocabulary that they’re going to have. Certainly not all of it, though. If you were to graph the number of words that you know over time, it would look something like this–fast growth early in life, followed by slow growth later in life, but no end to the growth. (Note that the numbers for vocabulary size are not realistic. Total vocabulary size by age 22 will be much larger than I have indicated, probably on the order of 30,000 words.)
So: I’m 58 years old, and I spent a really long time in college and graduate school, but I am still learning new words in my native language. Some recent ones:
- morganitic: relating to marriage between an aristocrat and a non-aristocrat, such that the issue of the marriage do not inherit ranks, titles, and the like.
- aramid: a group of synthetic materials used to make textiles and plastics.
- mephitic: nasty-smelling.
- irredentism: political policy of claiming territories occupied by members of your ethnic group (think Hitler in the Sudetenland), or that were historically part of your political group (think what Hungary would like to do with Transylvania).
What doesn’t happen very often, though: I don’t learn a new monosyllable in my native language very often. Thus, when I run across one, it tickles me. So, when a recent trip to New Orleans found me in a pharmacy museum, I was delighted to come across this exhibit:
Where the fuck does this come from? Let’s go look. Merriam-Webster does not have an entry for fleam, although it does have one for fleam tooth:
A sawtooth shaped like an isosceles triangle
The Online Etymological Dictionary gives me this:
“sharp instrument for opening veins in bloodletting,” late Old English, from Old French flieme (Modern French flamme), from Medieval Latin fletoma, from Late Latin flebotomus, from Greek phlebotomos “a lancet”
So: I never would have guessed it, but it turns out to be historically related to our word phlebotomy, and in fact precedes it in English by centuries. And thus the pathetic life of a fat, bald old man is made happy by learning a new one-syllable word…
Geeky linguist notes
- I’ve given 30,000 words as the size of a typical college-educated adult’s vocabulary. Take that with a grain of salt–counting the size of someone’s vocabulary is really hard, for a lot of reasons. You can find a good discussion of them in Elisabetta Jezek’s book The lexicon: An introduction.
- I calculated cumulative vocabulary size to age 22 (i.e. approximately the completion of an American college education) using the rate of growth that I gave in the post for the 2:6 age range, because that was the only age range for which I could find numbers. This results in a drastic underestimate of total vocabulary size–by age 22, it gives just a bit over 7,600 words. With slow growth after leaving college, there is no fucking way to hit 30,000 in a human lifetime.