The Rich Rewards of a Vast Vocabulary

MEGHAN COX GURDON considers the emotional dynamism of the words we use every day – and their functional and emotional value for children and adults alike – in this extract from her book, The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction.


“Words are as wild as rocky peaks. They’re as smooth as a millpond and as sunny as a day in a meadow. Words are beautiful things,” said the writer Brian Jacques. Words are beautiful things. They hold meaning, they reveal meaning, and they give us the power to express meaning. Words are also keys that unlock the world. Every time we read a book to a child, we are holding out a new box of interesting and useful keys for them to collect: a tumble of shapes and colours in which they may discover vintage keys, copper-coloured pin-tumblers, tubular keys, double-sided keys, grand brass lever-lock keys. The variety of the keys they find, by its very existence, hints at the wideness of possibility in the world.

In medieval times, the lady of a castle, the chatelaine, could be identified by the fact that she carried keys.

With the keys and other useful tools attached to a device strung with chains (also called a chatelaine) at her waist, she could enter any chamber, any storeroom, any locked closet. Having the keys made her mistress of her estate. The same is true for children and the words they learn. The more they have, the more vaults they can open. Not only that, but the more words they know, the more easily they’ll pick up new ones from context, syntax, and repetition.

There is music and antiquity in our words.

Ordinary language that you and I use with our children has come to us from the deep past, handed across generations through speech and print. Words are the raw materials of the “language arts,” that stale phrase from elementary school that no more than hints at the emotional dynamism and potential for beauty we can unlock through near-infinite combinations of words. Language is an art form, if not always expressed in ways that exhilarate. It is also democratic and universal: anyone can dabble, and there are no expensive paints or canvases to buy.

“If your attitude to language has been generated by a parent who enjoys it with you,” Philip Pullman has said, “who sits with you on their lap and reads with you and asks you questions and answers your questions, then you will grow up with a basic sense that language is fun. I can’t begin to express how important that is; the most important thing of all.”

Language allows children to occupy the world, their castle, as owners.

It means they can understand and describe things with texture and precision. It means that if a girl sees a dog or a squirrel, say, moving with great speed, she can describe what’s happening: is the creature darting or sprinting, racing or feinting, ambling or scampering? When something frightening happens, she can fine-tune her explanation: it was chilling, alarming, macabre, ghastly, daunting, or perhaps just unpleasant. Gradations of meaning matter, because they bring us closer to truth.

Even if nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, and the rest had no practical application, it still would be good for children to cultivate an ample and varied supply of them. That they do have functional value makes the spreading of their goodness that much more important.

The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction by Meghan Cox Gurdon, €19.59, (Harper Collins) is out now.

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