Vocabulary Changes Everything: Communication Is a Zombie

communication is a zombie

Just like that

After you get out of high school, vocabulary isn’t really something you think about (if you ever did). Sure, you talk, read, and listen, but you don’t think about the size of your vocabulary while you do it. You know the words you know – except when you forget them (usually in the middle of a sentence in front of someone important).

That’s even true for me and my overly-analytical self. Well, it was. But recently I’ve been reminded of how vocabulary changes everything – both your vocabulary and that of the people around you.

Why Vocabulary Changes Everything

Vocabulary Is Like a Zombie’s Tendons

It’s true. Vocabulary is like a zombie’s tendons: if enough of them are missing, things start falling apart. Sure, it might keep flopping or twitching, but it’s not making connections anymore.

What? Too macabre?

Now, you’re either smirking, rolling your eyes, or going “Huh?” And all because of 1 little word: macabre. That’s what I mean by connections. If you don’t know that word, reading it didn’t help you understand that sentence at all. I might as well have put a blank there. Or a little bracket (insert some strange, French-looking word here). Either way, there’s a disconnect in understanding between too and Now that the reader basically had to jump over and make a guess about what they missed.

Ok. Back to our zombie analogy. If macabre was the only tendon that the zombie was missing, nothing’s going to fall off. Yeah, the pinky finger might be a little loose, but 1. the word wasn’t integral to the paragraph, and 2. only one word was missing. That’s not going to do too much damage to the zombie (I’m enjoying that simile a little too much).

Words work together to help us communicate by connecting ideas to sounds, symbols, and their order. The fewer words you know, and the more the understanding begins to fall apart. So if you’re trying to communicate through writing, speech, etc., knowing enough words is pretty dang important.

If you don’t believe me, ask anyone who’s travelled without knowing the language. You better hope the nonverbals match (just sayin’).

Why Don’t We Notice?

So back to the fact that we rarely ever think about our vocabularies (despite the fact that they’re oh-so-important). Remember how I said earlier that I’ve been reminded recently of how vocabulary changes everything? Well, here are the situations that reminded me.

  1. The $2 Word: For my friend’s birthday, a big group of people went out to celebrate – a couple of people I knew but mostly people I didn’t. I used a multi-syllable word without thinking about it (because it’s a word I know that means what I was trying to say…), and I got a “Woah, big word!” reaction. Cue thinking, “It is?… Umm, ok. Yeah, I guess.”
  2. Subtleties: I’ve been taking classes a lot lately, and I’ve had some teachers that throw in subtle inside jokes when they’re talking, which is great! I mean, it definitely makes class more entertaining – until the rest of the students are giving you weird, sideways looks because you’re laughing, and they don’t know why. The joke went right over their heads.
  3. Shakespeare: My grandpa made the mistake of telling me that he has never enjoyed Shakespeare (sob). Being me, I, of course, made him watch The Comedy of Errors. Granted, it was performed by a Vaudevillian juggling troupe, so, it’s not what you’d call a dry performance. Still, he kept saying that he didn’t have any idea what’s going on (although he enjoyed the circus tricks), and I began to realize that in the recording, some of the more vital words are slurred or glossed over (it’s an old recording). And, naturally, I began to analyze how hard or easy it would be to follow if you missed those words. You can guess the answer.

Did you notice the pattern of when vocabulary went from a background habit to an actual thought? Every single time something called it to my attention, someone else reacted either by not understanding or acting surprised (given additional emphasis to a word they didn’t expect).

See, even though we don’t think about it that way, vocabulary is very much a social creation. Growing up, we mainly get our vocabulary from the people we see most: our family and friends. We also gain vocabulary from our watching and reading habits (reading grows vocabulary the most although movies can help), and we tend to have similar taste to the people we hang out with.

What that all boils down to is that the people you see most are going to know most of the same words you do. Sure, there will be some words that don’t crossover, but there’s a lot of overlap.

That’s why we don’t notice or think about our vocabulary: if everyone understands the words everyone else uses, there’s nothing to draw our attention to them. My friends and family wouldn’t have thought twice about the word I used at my friend’s birthday dinner; however, we probably wouldn’t know some of the words those people’s friends and families use.

What’s the moral to the story?

I don’t know – I don’t write fables!


Zombie-wise, all I can say is that when it comes to keeping those bones together and moving, vocabulary changes everything. And thanks to mine (and some macabre imagery), you may never think of communication the same way again. (You’re welcome.)

%d bloggers like this: