In praise of, like, vocabulary

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and lightning.” – Mark Twain

How many times as a child were you asked what you wanted to be when you grew up? A smart kid learns to always have an answer ready, whether it’s honest or not.

The point, after all, isn’t honesty.

That’s because the question itself is a slightly dishonest. What’s important isn’t what you say, they just want to hear you say it with a sense of confidence and determination.

“I’m going to be a rocket scientist” will be received with about the same acceptance as “I’m going to manage an Arctic Circle,” if you say it with a flash in your eye and a certain set in your jaw. This is because most adults don’t really care about your eventual goal, they just want to know that you have one, so they can rest easy in the knowledge that you won’t end up being a drain on society.

People are also reading…

Adults, you see, admire confidence. If you exude it, you are half-way to success.

But half-way is not all the way, and confidence alone won’t get you to the finish line — as many salesmen have discovered. In the long run, confidence succeeds only if it’s matched with competence.

And — sorry kids — there’s even a third requirement. Confidence? Check. Competence? Been there, got the diploma.

Nevertheless, far too many grads arrive at Human Resources without the annoyingly necessary ability to communicate precisely and intelligently with their coworkers, customers, and, most importantly, their bosses.

Well, you say, that ain’t fair. We all text. We all talk. No big whoop. Why am I even reading this dumb column?

Actually, if that’s your attitude, you probably never got this far down the page anyway. But since you’re here, I expect you’re already getting my point.

Which is this: Precise communication is important. It’s important in friendships, in relationships, and in the workplace. All other things being equal, those who are skilled communicators will enjoy more success in every aspect of life than those who aren’t.

As a child, I read a lot of books, and not because I didn’t have friends. In my defense, 60 years ago there was no Netflix, Disney+, or video games to suck away my childhood’s hours. No Harry Potter or Wimpy Kids, either. On the plus side, we had Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys.

So I was a reader — perhaps above my pay grade — and for a long time understood maybe two or three words out of four. But my father, bless him, brought home a book one day that changed my life. My very own dictionary.

“When you don’t know a word,” he said, “look it up.”

“I don’t know how,” I said, more than a little intimidated.

“You know the alphabet, don’t you?”

I did. In sixth grade I read “Macbeth.” Murder, ghosts, twisted witches, blood everywhere—it was a young boy’s dream come true. I recommended it to all my friends. To my knowledge none of them took me up on it, which, at the time, baffled me. Still does, to be honest.

Now I’m old. My body’s mostly shot, but my brain is fortunately chugging along. Through the years I’ve learned a lot of words.

This is partly because of the career I chose — journalism — where precise language is vital, and imprecise language can get your company sued and yourself fired.

It’s true that an above-average vocabulary is a gift sometimes best left under wraps. In a heated political discussion, for example, $5 words may mark you as just another egghead elitist, providing nothing more than an easy reason for your opponent to write you off as an insufferable pinhead.

Nevertheless, among normal people, when the chips are on the line, the ability to be confidently precise in your words can save you both headaches and heartaches.

With a reasonable command of the language, you can speak your heart and mind with confidence, precision and accuracy. In today’s world this is a vastly underrated skill, in both personal relationships and the affairs of nations.

Like, you dig? It’s really down, yo?


Chris Huston is an author and award-winning columnist living in the Magic Valley. Connect with Chris on Facebook and Instagram at Chris Huston-Finding My Way and at

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