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Revenge of the Words

The Wordle enthusiasm (I would not deign to call it a craze) is fascinating, as it shines a light on something which understandably does not get much coverage, since it is about the declining vocabularies of Americans. ( I don’t know how it is in the rest of the world, but I would guess fairly similar).

Yesterday’s Wordle word (they have a new one every day, so unless one has been saving them up, it does not seem wrong to mention them the day after, so here it comes), was “tacit.”

Now, I am guessing that almost everyone who visits here knows that word. And if you did not, I am glad that you made the effort to play the game, and thus learn new words. That is always a plus for a person, wanting to learn new things. And I am not saying that I know all the English words, either, though I think I know most of them. I didn’t strive to do this, I just loved to read, and so learned many words, and I was always excited to find a new one.

I loved to read books, and read at a very young age. I wasn’t John Stuart Mill, who apparently learned Greek and Latin at age six or so. I just read Uncle Wiggily books, and Burgess animal stories, and Winnie-the-Pooh; and then adventure stories like “Treasure Island,” and “The Three Musketeers.”

My mother would read to me when I was very young, and I had many Golden Books, wonderful for young children. I particularly liked “The Color Kittens,” and “The Party Pig.” Then my father read the great adventure tales to me, “Treasure Island,” my very favorite; and “Kidnapped,” and “Robinson Crusoe,” and “The Jungle Book.” Then I read good sports novels, and mysteries; and then started reading some classic novels. Oh, and I had a good book of Greek mythology to ponder over. Then I majored in English in college, and strongly considered getting a PhD in English, but ultimately did other graduate work instead, but literature was always my favorite academic subject.

I am sure that most here followed a similar path, with the love of books, and of course the words in them. Books are made up of words, of course. Words are the primary way in which humans communicate, though of course there are nonverbal ways, such as facial expressions, loud noises, physical actions or inactions.

The importance of having a good vocabulary is twofold: the ability to express yourself with some depth and nuance, and the capacity to understand the nuance in the statements of other people you literally encounter, or just through the pages of books. The more words you know, the more potential nuance you can explore.

Obviously, there are those people, we might call them sesquipedalians, who delight in using long words to show off, or sound very intelligent. I like the French term “le mot juste,” literally meaning “the right word,” the word that just fits the precise meaning one is trying to convey. I just read that the term was coined by the novelist Flaubert, who would sometimes spend weeks searching for just the right word or phrase to use. Would that more aspired to that!

So some indeed might overdo it. And people who do not have very large vocabularies might resent those whom they think are trying to outshine them. I remember a high school English teacher, who apparently thought that I was doing that; as he all of sudden made a comment about once knowing someone who would use “twenty dollar words” when a “two dollar word” would be fine. Well, I never tried to show off in that way in school, I just used the words that I thought best expressed what I wanted to say. And I did not know very many arcane words, I just used those that I read in books, or that I learned from talking to my parents. But obviously his comment stung me, and it was entirely inappropriate coming from an English teacher. Oh, well.

I do remember always asking my mother, if she were sitting outside with me, what a new word meant. And like many mothers and fathers, she would usually say, “look it up.” But that would mean that I would have to get off the comfortable lounge chair where I was reading; go inside, get the dictionary down from the bookcase; find the word, read the definition, and then go back outside! So while I did it sometimes, I would often just try to figure it out by context, and then did that instead of asking. I think that my father was somewhat more amenable to explaining a word, but he was usually inside doing his artwork, so there were less opportunities to ask him.

I do remember once having difficulty, not with a word, but what I later learned was a dramatic figure of speech. I was reading a book where various writers recounted a dramatic event in baseball. Most were exciting and inspiring stories; but one wrote about the great pitcher Christy Mathewson, “Big Six,” Ivy League educated, and a hero to so many people. Mathewson had gone to fight in World War I, and was poisoned by gas, which the Germans were using in contravention of the war protocols. He did return home, but was never the same, and he tragically died young.

The writer saw him pitch after his return, and not do well; and he described the once untouchable pitcher being hammered; and one of the balls being whacked against the fence at the Polo Grounds. And he wrote, “But the ball wasn’t rolling against the fence, it was in my gullet.”

And oh, how I struggled to understand that sentence. How could the ball be in the writer’s gullet? I asked my mother, and I think she tried to explain somewhat, but I was still confused; and I think it was quite a while after, that I finally understood, that the writer was so upset at seeing his idol now be a shadow of his once great athletic self, that he felt a lump in his throat, akin to the ball being there. What a wonderful turn of phrase.

So where was I? Oh, yes, the value of a strong vocabulary, and the ability to try to express a thought or feeling with as much accuracy and emotion as one could. So it is not about “showing off,” or “looking for twenty dollar words,” it is wanting to be able to express oneself as well as one can. And to do that, you need to know a lot of words, and use them appropriately.

I have always liked word games, though I don’t do them too often. So here comes Wordle, and it is fun to play, though I have strong objections to the New York Times expurgating some words because they decide that they might offend people. And we have discussed that, as we should! But since the game is currently so popular, all the social media which was not present when I was going to school, has become a place for literally millions of people to add their comments, which unfortunately, at least for me, are usually about how hard they think the game has become.

I sometimes look to see if there is an article about the wordle of the day, but only after I have played. I have never looked at any article where someone tries to give advice as to what words to start with, though I certainly enjoy reading the comments here, and I don’t mind learning things, but I want to do as well as I can do on my own, because it is a source of pride for me, as I am sure it is for everyone else who solves one of them, and it should be. We may not be able to do feats on ice or on the track or in the pool, but we can be proud of our ability to use the language, and think of word combinations, and know many words. Not that we gain the fame and applause that the athletes get, but it is still nice to tell a few people, at least.

So there have apparently been a lot of complaints about “how hard the Wordle is getting.” I have not seen that to be so, I just regret the taking away of useful words to try, because of some sanctimonious efforts at the NYT to not allow anyone to guess a word, even just for a clue, that they deem inappropriate, or upsetting, or esoteric or archaic. Bah.

Well, recently the word was “caulk,” and there was a good deal of complaining, people saying they had never heard of the word. Maybe it is a generational thing, but I thought that it was a pretty common word, people still caulk their tubs and tile floors. Then there was “swill,” which seems to me to be very much in use. Anyone who has read any books which take place on a farm, or about ship voyages, would know that word, but I guess some have not, because there were many complaints.

And then yesterday, the word was “tacit.” Now surely anyone who reads or has read newspapers, or watches the news, or has read at least a few books, should know that word. It is pretty commonly used, whether in politics or even sports. But here is what an article on Yahoo said; “‘Who uses this word?!’ Players in uproar over Wordle 246.”

“Another day, another Wordle that has befuddled players and stirred up frustration over the viral word game. Twitter users took to the platform in droves again to express their outrage at the puzzle…”

“The past week has seen some players complain that ‘the game is getting too hard to play,’ with some theorizing that the NYT purposely chooses the most difficult five-letter words to challenge them. Today’s Wordle 246 result left many frustrated, and wondering it it was a real or even commonly used word.”…

“However, a number of people said that they had never heard the word ‘tacit’ before or did not know what it meant. Others were thrown off by the use of a double letter word again.”

One person who got it on the sixth try, wrote “This was a complete guess. WTF is that word?” Another wrote in capital letters “Who uses this word?!” Another said that they had to “search up words to find this, because it was so confusing.”

I will say that there was a spike in searches for the meaning of the word “tacit,” which could be good, but most likely it will stop there, and they will never use it.

Now, I could respond to all of this in various ways. I could be generous, and nice, and say that it is great that so many people are playing a word game, and sharing their experiences, and maybe learning some new words, and that this is something to be applauded.

Or I could be acerbic and maybe condescending, and say that tacit is not an arcane word, it is used in many areas, particularly law, and national and world politics. It simply refers to a commitment or agreement to something without expressing definitive verbal approval. It is not something that one has to have an advanced degree or even a college education to understand its meaning. It is not used as commonly as “kinda” or “sorta,” but it is much more elegant, and expressive of its meaning. So maybe people should actually read some books, or some essays, and learn some new words, because this would help them to not only communicate, but think, with more nuance and precision and depth.

I could say that, but that might be ungenerous or sarcastic. The thing is that people get by, in many cases quite well, without knowing too many words. That is fine; many uneducated people live productive lives, and some make a lot of money. But the problem we have as a society is that our discourse is being atrophied and degraded, because there is an decreasing number of words and phrases which people are capable of using to describe or understand a situation which is more complex than the average.

You want to know whether your manager allows you to take some extra time past your lunch hour. You think he has. Another person challenges you and demands to see it in writing. You might say, “He never wrote it down, but I asked him about it once, and he didn’t say that he objected; and he has not said anything when I have, and he has praised my work, so he has given his tacit consent.” You might not even say all of the first part, just “he has given his tacit consent.” Actually, in various informal or even formal hearings, in an office, or in court, the concept of “tacit consent” can be significant.

So it is a word that can be useful to know and comprehend. The more of these words and concepts that one understands, the more able one can be to explain a position or action. It does not mean that you will always come out ahead, or be right, but you will have a greater understanding and ability to grasp what is going on. And if you read somewhere that a government or political figure is said to have given their tacit approval to a course of action, you will know what that means.

This is what more people should want to do, rather than complaining about words that they don’t know or think they have never seen. And though the Wordle game and comments are in good humor, there seems to be a bit of defensive pride from people who don’t know the words when they see the answers. Almost a sort of anti-intellectualism. “I don’t know that word, why should I? Cut down the list of words, let’s have ones like bread, and store, and great. Get rid of those other ones, I can’t be bothered with them.”

Unfortunately, no one is an island. And if the society you live in is being dumbed down, and if vocabularies are decreasing, what you know would have even less power to affect or change someone else’s opinion, because they don’t have the figurative or literal vocabulary to engage in the discussion. In that sense, the social chain may be no stronger than its weakest links, if there are multitudes of them. At least that is my thought of the day. 🙂


25 Responses

  1. It is always satisfying to win at any game and disappointing to lose. But one hopes the Wordle phenomenon will spur a new (or renewed) love of language and a quest to learn unfamiliar words. Winning is not everything but social media seems to feed into the idea that it is. Why not brag on Twitter “I learned a new word today!” rather than complain about how difficult the game has become (although I don’t think it has become more difficult).

    I was fortunate to be raised by parents who both had advanced degrees. We always had books around the house, as well as various journals and magazines. We had the Encyclopedia Britannica and several dictionaries. I remember spending many hours looking at the beautiful pictures in the encyclopedia before I learned to read. My parents often read to me when I was very young. They also talked to me about many subjects, from art to politics, and encouraged me to form my own opinions and express them.

    My father was opposed to the use of ‘baby talk” with children but my mother was more lenient in that regard. Children acquire an extensive vocabulary by being read to and then reading on their own but also by listening to those around them talk and being allowed to speak freely about their own ideas and thoughts. My parents were very good in that regard. I am grateful to them but I also realize my childhood was not the norm.

    Our educational system needs to emphasis the continuing importance of the spoken and written language even in today’s digital age. Lifelong learning also should be a priority. Adults who did not have early advantages can find myriad forms of educational opportunities that will increase their vocabularies. Indeed, there seem to be more ways to learn today than ever before. So look at Wordle as a learning tool and enjoy those new words!

    • I see that I used the phrase “in that regard” twice in one paragraph. I am mortified by my repetitive use of words.

      When we know better, we do better.

  2. I much appreciate William’s posts. Been meaning to say that for a while. Excellent addition to the blog. I started doing Wordle slightly after William. Now have 39 games, no losses — that should jinx me.

    FYI, there is a nice archive site where you can play all the old words starting from the beginning. I found the first three words challenging. There was one I wasn’t sure was a word, but turned out to be the answer.


    And yes, I’ve learned some new words. I never really new the definition of cadge, and now I do. And words ending in ight. B and W will work as first letters. Light was the answer to that one.

    • An unbroken record of 39 wins! Very impressive!

    • Yes Impressive to have no misses. I have the stigma of 1 ;-o).

      THANKS for that site I will be checking it out as soon as I leave here. I don’t remember the date I started but I have played 59 games so I guess it was Dec 3.

  3. I did get the wordle in three tries today, though it was not a difficult one. Maybe NYT is determined not to get any complaints from people not knowing the word? That would certainly limit the word choices for the game. They should just pick any five-letter word that was English, not a proper name, and not clearly vulgar. The “hard words” are what give our language some depth. Ah, well, that is the cost of commercialism, this apparent adjusting of the word game.

    • I got it in 5 although it usually takes me fewer guesses. I’ve even gotten several 2s.
      Some days, the answer could be staring right in front of me. But it might be one letter at the beginning or end that makes the difference. When there are a few possibilities, then it’s just guessing until you get it right. I got 4/5 letters on the 4th try but there were a couple of words that could have worked and I just happened to choose the wrong one first.

      • The only thing that matters is getting the word in six guesses! No extra prizes for getting it faster. You are right that one letter gotten early can make it easier, there is luck involved in that. it is nice that you are playing, too.

  4. THANKS corrigan.

    I was able to play all of those back games. I am now 246 out of 249. The three I missed being 130, 184, and 190.

    IF anyone is a coder, I have found that this archive keeps all of the past games in storage. I assume that IF I were to clear the cache I would lose it all, but by inspecting the local storage I now have an array stored in JSON that shows my games from 1 – 187

  5. A good wordle today, looked pretty easy after three tries, much harder after four, probably because I made a mistake in my third word, a letter testing word. But I did get it on my fifth guess. There will be some complaining about this one, but not as much as with a couple of the others we have noted.

    • I also got the answer in five guesses. It wasn’t a difficult word so I am rather disappointed in myself.

      I fully expect today’s Twitter world to be complaining that the NYT is a load of old tosh.

    • Yep looks like 5 is the norm for Confluence wordlers today

  6. PHEW. I got today’s answer in 6 guesses. Not my personal best.

    • Agreed, today’s word was one that I had only 2 letters after my first 3 guesses, but they were in the right positions. Did manage to get it in 5 which is my most common result (60%).

  7. Comments from yahoo which I sometimes look at, only after I have gotten the word. Headline, “‘Am I just dumb?’ Wordle answer leaves players stumped.” “Worldle players are feeling frustrated this morning, as many failed to guess today’s five-letter word.” One players wrote, “Everyone who solved today’s wordle deserves a PHD.” Another said that it “was the best wordle challenge yet.” So just getting it should be cause for pride.

    • Interesting, Knowing only the I and the D and that there were no other vowels, I used one guess to see if there was a B, nope. And via process of elimination came up with there had to be 2 i and the answer came to me vividly.

      I don’t take getting the wordl as a sign of intelligence. I take failure to get the wordl as a sign that I am getting older.

      Where on Yahoo do you see these comments?

    • I got today’s Wordle in 3. Not feeling super smart about it though.
      I will say that since the NYT bought Wordle, the game has gotten a LOT harder. It used to be the solution was just an ordinary 5 letter word. Now you have to consider double consonants, double vowels and sometimes both in the same word. A score of 3 is unusual for me these days. The second guess was really just a guess. I just got lucky that it filled out 4/5 letters in the solution in the right order. After that, there was only one possibility.

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