Friday, February 15, 2013

Lost for Words -- Writer's Poke #420

The Oxford English Dictionary contains over 600,000 words. Simply put, no other language comes close. Spanish, for example, only has 100,000 words. Here’s the sad news: The richness of the English language more or less goes to waste. The average English speaker recognizes somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 words. 

But guess how many words we actually use of a regular basis? According to Richard Lederer, 96% of average conversations conducted in English are comprised of the 737 most common words! Listen to a conversation the next time you’re in some public place, and you’ll probably be able to quickly confirm these findings. 

Maybe we don’t need 500 words for “big” when “big” will do just fine, but if that’s true, isn’t it interesting that the English language keeps growing by 1,000 words each year? The language itself continues to grow larger, while the average English-speaker's vocabulary seems to shrink year after year.

Who takes the time to study vocabulary words? I did for a while, but that was years ago when I was studying for the GRE. I have never met anyone who studies vocabulary for fun. Maybe there are some crossword puzzle fans or Scrabble players out there that study vocabulary words, but why aren’t there thousands, if not millions, of English-speaking people who just want to be able to communicate better? Why aren’t they studying vocabulary?

Studying vocabulary is a natural process. When my five-year old daughter doesn’t recognize a word, she asks. That’s really all that’s required, but for the most part, once we grow up, we no longer take the time to ask. We no longer take the time to learn. We’re content with what we know, and if we read a passage and don’t recognize a word, we don’t stop to look it up. We just race right past it, content with the 700 words or so that serve most of our daily purposes.

How would you describe your knowledge of the English language? If you don’t study vocabulary, is it because you think you already know all the words you need?

“Drawing on my fine command of the English language, I said nothing.” – Robert Benchley

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Shoe Knows? -- Writer's Poke #419

A study published in the Journal of Research in Personality concludes that the shoes you wear say a lot about you. Just by looking at your shoes, a complete stranger can apparently tell if you’re introverted or extroverted, if you have a difficult time forming long-lasting relationships, and so forth.

Personally, I’ve been wearing Asics Gel Running Shoes for the past two years. I currently have three pairs in rotation, and although I own other shoes, I almost never wear them. What do other people think about my preference of footwear? I have no idea, but I doubt if anyone would reach the right conclusion, which is this: I have foot issues. Specifically, I have gout inflammations maybe once or twice a year, and so I wear comfortable shoes at all times to be nice to my feet.

I do support the idea that what we wear or the products we prefer can tell others something about us. In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner quips that the details and preferences authors give to their characters matters. Even a subtle detail, that a character brushes with Crest instead of Pepsodent, writes Gardner, gives readers a useful clue about the character’s personality. Does it really? If so, I’m not sure how. I suppose Pepsodent is cheaper, but what if you take two equivalent brands? Returning to shoes for a second, is a person who prefers higher-end Nikes really all that much different from someone who favors higher-end Reeboks? Chevy drivers may be different from Mercedes drivers, but are BMW drivers really all that different from Jaguar drivers?

Since I haven’t read the actual shoe study, I’m not completely sure what the authors intended to prove. How are we to use the study's findings? I suppose that at some subconscious level, all of us might look down at other people’s feet and make a variety of conclusions about what we see. But then what? Should we utilize this knowledge to shift how we communicate to other people, even if it means throwing out all of our shoes and buying pairs that communicate the proper message?

What nonverbal cues are you communicating to other people – based on what you wear, what products you use, what tattoos or piercings you have, what makeup you wear, etc.?

"I still have my feet on the ground, I just wear better shoes." -- Oprah Winfrey

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Transforming the Impossible into "I'm Possible" -- Writer's Poke #418

1. Is it possible to visit all of the countries in the world? 

Yes it is. Chris Guillebeau spent the last five years visiting all 193 countries recognized by the United Nations (or more than 270 countries, regions, and territories as calculated by the Traveler’s Century Club). How did he do it? Was he independently wealthy? Nope. He was just a regular guy who wanted to do something and found a way to do it.

2. Is it possible to walk the entire Great Wall of China?

Yes it is. Robert Loken spent 601 days walking roughly 6000 kilometers (just under 4000 miles).  How did he do it? First, he thought about it for a long time – 20 years. Then, he made a commitment to do it. Obviously someone doesn’t just say, “I’m going to go walk the Great Wall of China,” and board the first plane to Beijing. It takes quite a bit of planning, and a willingness to temporally put your life on hold. But when Loken was ready, he quit his job, sold his house, and lived his dream.

3. Is it possible for a blind man to climb the highest mountain in the world?

Yes it is. Erik Weihenmayer has not only conquered Mt. Everest, but he has also climbed the highest summits on all seven continents.  In his autobiography, he suggests that anyone can achieve his accomplishments, and he basically rejects using blindness as an excuse. Set a goal, he says, and work to achieve it.

These three individuals would all agree that it’s vital to have help and support from friends and family, but in the end, it was their inner motivation, determination, and drive that helped each of them turn the impossible into shining examples of “I’m possible.”

“What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” – Robert Schuller

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Try -- Writer's Poke #417

One of the challenges of being human is learning how to deal with our emotions. Life is difficult, no matter who you are. And although I might not have lived your life or shared all of your experiences, that doesn’t mean that I can’t emphasize with the challenges you’ve faced.

No, I may not know you, but you and I are both human, and so we share a human perspective. We both recognize how difficult it can be to let go of the traumatic experiences we carry around with us from our pasts. The traumas may not be the same, either in kind or degree, but does anyone doubt that we share painful experiences? It comes with being human.

These experiences shape who we are, but we cannot allow them to dictate who we become. The past is only productive if we learn from our experiences. Once we learn, we must find ways to let go and move forward. Holding on to the past only disables us from being anything other than what we once were. 

The past experiences that we like, we should build upon. The past experiences that we hate, we should learn from and move beyond. Yes, it is easy for me to write this, and it is a lot more difficult for me to always heed my own advice. But I choose to try. I don’t consider defeat to be a viable option.

In what ways are you moving beyond the restraints of your past?

“At every crisis in one’s life, it is absolute salvation to have some sympathetic friend to whom you can think aloud without restraint or misgiving.” -- Woodrow Wilson