Nov

30

Vocabulary brings the world to an individual. Without words we are reduced to surviving by non-verbal signs and gestures, primitive. Basic survival.

Some have expressed irritation when I write about incarceration, convictions, and whatever is associated with penal servitude, but any convict can vastly improve his life if while serving time he takes up the task of building his vocabulary.

My grandmother sent me a Webster’s Dictionary and a thesaurus at my request when I entered Walla Walla State Penitentiary without more than a 9th grade education. I took a liking to words and began reading just the dictionary.

In adult life I carried a pocket thesaurus, in my shirt pocket, and whenever a moment was idle I would read it.

A pocket thesaurus, maybe leather bound, would be perfect gift for any occasion, as a birthday for a child with some basic language skills to evolve with.

One word can lead to another, to an association. One association leads to another, until the student has gone into another dimension and left others behind.

I did not however, leave my street vocabulary behind and I cherish the way it can embellish a conversation with exclamatory frills.

Stefan Jovanovich comments:

Ken would have been right at home in 1780. In the 18th century nine out of ten Americans could read and understand the King James Bible, and all who could afford it owned a copy. (Today only an optimist would argue that the number was higher than three out of ten.) The extraordinary exception of the American Revolution and the Federalist Papers comes from the fact that the “average” American of that time had a larger vocabulary than present day college graduates. That fact also explains the lethality of Continental marksmanship that the British Army so justly complained about. The use of rifled barrels has been the conventionally accepted academic explanation, but the far more likely one is the extraordinary literacy of the “ordinary” American soldier, who carried a musket (not a rifle). The ability to read and write and think correlates directly with the ability to shoot, as Scott Brooks’ postings and hunting skills amply demonstrate.

Those of us who hate the draft do so for two simple reasons: it is a reminder of how far we Americans have gone on the road to serfdom, and dumb conscripts make lousy soldiers. The two best memoirs of “ordinary” American soldiers were written by Joseph Plumb Martin and E. B. Sledge. The first was an 18th century farm laborer; the second a 20th century biology professor. Both were volunteers.


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