According to the Economist, the average adult native speaker has a working vocabulary of between 20,000 and 35,000 words. The vast majority of these words are learnt in school with acquisition ceasing almost entirely after the completion of University. This is further compounded by the fact that barely 60% of Americans read at least one book per year! Readership is slightly higher in countries like France but the decline in readership is something that can be noticed throughout the West.
Reading was once the domain of the very educated, wealthy elite. Having been democratized by movable type and the public education, reading became one of the greatest leisure activities of the modern age. Now, in the face of bright, loud, and flashy competition such as Television, the internet, and, especially now, video games, reading has faced a sharp decline. And a little mentioned side effect is the drop off this is the negative impact this has on the working vocabulary of the populace. People are not likely to encounter a new word traversing the vast Sahara of video game blogs and BuzzFeed articles. In fact I’d expect that, over time, their working vocabulary shrinks as many words are only used in a literary context. A simple way to illustrate this point is to look at so-called SAT words.These notoriously difficult and rare words ought to be second nature to someone in his 30s; however, oftentimes they are long forgotten.
Your vocabulary is not a static thing, you don’t get to wrote a word in the mental lexicon and expect it to be there five years later when you are trying to pull it out at a meeting to look a little better educated than Stephen. No, if you haven’t encountered it in five years, it’s likely long gone. You might recognize it in writing but you will be hard pressed to use it in conversation.
The best way to care for your vocabulary is to water it often. Read, both a lot and carefully: If you encounter a word of dubious meaning: for the love of God, look it up! There is no excuse with electronic dictionaries – it will take one minute at most. However, if you read frequently, there is a good chance that you rarely run across a new word. In order to keep improving, you should specifically target difficult and rarely used words. One of the ways I do this is by language learning (Latin is particularly wonderful for this) but the other is via a daily email called A.W.A.D. or A Word A Day. It is a tiny email that is sent out daily (and for me is the only non-annoying daily mailing list I’ve ever encountered) containing, well, one word per day. The word itself is included in the subject so if you already know it then there is no need to waste your time. Within the email all definitions are listed and the historical examples of usage are given, which really helps insofar as understanding where to use it.
At the end of the week a digest is sent out containing all the words of the week as well as poetry and reflections from other people the mailing list.
And finally, WRITE down every new word you learn. As a native English speaker new words should be uncommon so this is not much of a hassle. Review your list once in a while and you might be shocked how many new words you’re learning.