Things I ponder until madness

January 29, 2010

Why Word Nerds Rule

A word nerd is what I call someone who has a big vocabulary and enjoys using it correctly. You may think these people are just showing off, but I would like to suggest otherwise.

Have you ever noticed that certain people sound much different in writing than in person, and that they also have problems expressing themselves clearly in emails or IMs? If we take a look at how communication has evolved over the millennia, we can see both why this is the case, and why — despite what our critics say — word nerds are the pioneers of the future.

Throughout history, language has evolved hand-in-hand with the complexity of the ideas we’ve needed to express. When an idea cannot be precisely communicated with the existing vocabulary, new vocabulary is invented. Back before we had spoken language, our vocabulary consisted exclusively of body language and perhaps grunts of various intonations. Our species became extremely skilled at expressing and perceiving needs and emotions nonverbally, and we still rely heavily on that ability today, particularly before we’re old enough to understand speech. It is commonly stated that 95% of meaning in a typical face-to-face conversation is transmitted through nonverbal language, whereas only 5% is transmitted through words.

But what exactly is in that 95% of nonverbal information? What does body language add to our words to help us communicate more effectively? The answer is emotion. Consider the phrase “Jason’s at the front door.” When you read that out of context, you can assume nothing beyond that a guy named Jason is at the front door. It could have any number of possible implications. But now, try saying it with each of the emotions in the list below and imagine the meanings it could have in each case.

“Jason’s at the front door”: Happiness – Sadness – Fear – Love – Anger – Urgency – Surprise – Excitement – Confidence

As you can see, the originally ambiguous phrase has so much more meaning when we use nonverbal cues such as intonation, facial expression and gestures to resolve ambiguity. Also notice how your story changes if you change the age of the speaker, which is another nonverbal cue.

Bliss 4 by For Ashlee Zelann #1 ON EXPLORE by Joe-Nathan ( Afraid by My Destination's Beautiful Dark Curls by kkelly2007 I'm Feeling Angry Today by liber Tunnel Vision by fontograph Surprise! by LightScripter Love It! by NMTeach3 i'm not pretentious... by crazyfrogleg [catching flies]

But let’s go back to the history of language. Once we developed phonetic written languages, our vocabulary and grammar began to evolve much more quickly. Written communication lacked visual or auditory aids to resolve its ambiguities, so word choice became extremely important. However, most writing was for record keeping or formal communication, and those who knew how to write were generally well-educated and understood the need for careful word choice.

Nowadays, we still make heavy use of body language, and using it properly is a very important social skill. However, written communication has gained incredible ground. The convenience, speed and efficiency of written media such as email, text messaging and IM often makes it a better choice than conversations by phone or in person, even for day-to-day chats. As as result, writing is no longer reserved for the highly educated; many people use writing for little more than informal communication over email and IM. These people tend to write the way they speak, not understanding that they are omitting 95% of the information they would otherwise be conveying with body language. Their written communication is awkward and riddled with ambiguity, and they are unable to express ideas as simple as driving directions without causing confusion. But they think they are being entirely clear, and are confused when others misinterpret them.

These people would have formed the illiterate class a few hundred years ago, and would communicate strictly via face-to-face conversation. Now they have access to written language, a very powerful and richly expressive tool, but they do not know how to use it properly. That, coupled with the fact that written communication is so commonplace, is causing common usage to deviate farther and farther from what was once considered proper. However, the language is also maturing faster than ever before, and the divide between those who use writing formally and informally is widening.

As time goes on, more and more of our communication will be textual, and our nonverbal communication skills will begin to atrophe to some degree. Being able to write well is aready essential for effective communication today, and those who lack written communication skills are frequently misunderstood or not taken seriously. Their inability to express themselves precisely over text leads to ambiguity and misunderstandings, which result in frustration, wasted time, wasted money, and even lost lives. So if people tell you that you speak like a walking thesaurus, take it as a compliment, and be happy that you possess the communication skills necessary for success in the Information Age.

In the background of this rather anachronistic portrayal of an cave dweller, we can see some early occurrences of phonetic written language. Credit: Deathwaves@Flickr.



  1. Eschew obfuscation, espouse elucidation.

    [Technological and cultural change] is causing common usage to deviate farther and farther from what was once considered proper.

    Yes. This is how languages evolve. All languages. Just as biological evolution works through random (and more often than not, detrimental) mutation, or changes in the environment.

    Don’t like constantly evolving languages in which common usage deviates farther and farther away from what was once considered proper? May I suggest taking up Latin or Aramaic?


    Comment by Micha Ghertner — January 29, 2010 @ 3:13 am

    • I didn’t say it was a bad thing, or that current usage is no longer proper! I was very careful about my word choice 🙂


      Comment by Moshe Jacobson — January 29, 2010 @ 6:23 am

  2. This is absolutely right. I’m always afraid of conveying the wrong message when I write and am very careful to find just the right words. I use the little expression icons when I want to make sure I’m not misinterpreted. It’s a poor substitute to body language, but sometimes it helps.


    Comment by mom — January 29, 2010 @ 9:23 am

    • You raise a really good point, Mom. I should have mentioned emoticons, which are an essential, though insufficient, replacement for body language in IM and informal emails.


      Comment by Moshe Jacobson — January 29, 2010 @ 9:35 am

  3. Our brains have evolved to make use of body cues. The pace of technology is too fast for evolution (of humans)* to keep up with. I would be willing to bet that technology will not stay limited to textual communication, because textual communication will never be as efficient as non-verbal communication. Personally, I think technology will evolve to allow us to use things other than the written word for communication before “word nerds” completely rule.

    *Of course, insects have proven they can easily thwart our technology, with their fast generation times — just consider insecticide resistance. For that matter, consider microbial resistance.


    Comment by Srishti — January 29, 2010 @ 11:59 am

    • What kind of communication employing body language do you think will become most prevalent, and why? I don’t think videos can hold a light to text, since they are not easily indexed or searchable, and it is not easy to find the portion of the video that interests you if you do not wish to listen to the entire thing.


      Comment by Moshe Jacobson — January 29, 2010 @ 12:36 pm

  4. Nowadays, we still make heavy use of body language, and using it properly is a very important social skill. However, written communication has gained incredible ground.

    I often wonder why hand-held telegram devices weren’t developed before the telephone. The leap between sending telegrams and calling someone on the phone seems so much greater.

    Technological obstacles notwithstanding, of course.


    Comment by sittingpugs — January 29, 2010 @ 7:23 pm

  5. I feel pretty spectacular anytime someone has to look up a word I use in conversation!


    Comment by meropa — February 2, 2010 @ 3:51 pm

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