Bears Repeating: Words of the Day

Bears Repeating: Words of the Day

Head of School Jess Hill shares her thoughts on the importance of words in her latest blog post: Words of the Day. Read more from her Bears Repeating blog.

Words of the Day

by Jess Hill

February 2020

Each day I am reminded of the importance of words. Whoever said, "but words can never hurt you," must not have understood the power words have. At the same time, describing a beautiful sunset or a tender moment can render some of us speechless, unless we store a rich and full vocabulary in our back pocket. Learning to use those words in a clear and meaningful way, would be my best 21st century career advice to anyone.

Just this afternoon, I sat in a room with about 10 other colleagues as we tried to articulate a description of a "portrait of a Harpeth Hall graduate." We endeavored to write about the best attributes our graduates carry with them as they venture into the world. Today was not our first meeting to accomplish this task, and it will not be our last. As we sat together at the conference table, drafting and honing and editing this document, it started to take shape, and something that seemed so nebulous and hard to define, began to have form. Our portrait began to emerge, and in that moment, we realized that attaching words to this vision, made it come alive and become more than an idea. The words created something out of nothing.

Each year, our college freshmen complete a survey which gives us essential feedback on our program. We learn about what helped them in the college search process. Were they well prepared across the board, in each of their classes? Are there any courses or skills they wish they had? And each year, our students express how well prepared they are as writers. It turns out that they are the outliers in their classes, and common rooms, and dormitory halls. Girls who never considered themselves to be the best writers at Harpeth Hall are suddenly giving advice and helping their friends and classmates form a coherent paragraph. 

Let's return to the age-old question, "If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, did it make a sound?" I realize I am going out on a limb to extend this philosophical question. If we are not able to articulate our thoughts, are they less real? If we know we are a great school, would we be as great without the words at the end of our Mission Statement? (Harpeth Hall educates girls to think critically, to lead confidently, and to live honorably.) I think not. If we do good work, but don't have the words around us to define our experience, is our work as enduring?

In Shakespeare's day, it was believed his vocabulary was around 65,000 words. Today's English speakers generally have a vocabulary of around 20,000 words. I suspect our day-to-day lives are filled with more texting and less letter writing, more repetition in our speech and less artful variance than in Elizabethan England. A larger and richer list of words describing that sunset or tender moment, may not make them more beautiful, but certainly more memorable.

Finally, my real intrigue with words has to do with how they give us a framework for more complex thought. A recent article stated that "vocabulary is a tool of thought. Without a rich vocabulary, student thought is simplistic." An example cited was a passage in a historical novel about living conditions. Were they "very dirty" or were they "squalid?" In 2020, is it "important" to pay our taxes or is it "imperative?"

Most of us tend to use a larger vocabulary in our writing than we do in our everyday speech. Inevitably, we will experience that sunset and still become tongue tied when describing it after the fact. In those moments, I rely on Teddy Roosevelt's description of the Grand Canyon upon seeing it for the first time, "It bankrupts the language." Stating that some experiences are beyond words is an important tool as well.