09-A. Learned words and popular words
In every cultivated language there are two great classes of words which, taken together, make up the whole vocabulary. First, there are those words with which we become familiar in ordinary conversation, which we learn, that is to say, from the members of our own family and from our friends, and which we should know and use even if we could not read or write. They concern the common things of life, and are the stock in trade of all who speak the language. Such words may be called “popular,” since they belong to the people at large and are not the possession of limited class only.
On the other hand, our language includes a large number of words which are relatively seldom used in ordinary conversation. Their meanings are known to every educated person, but there is little occasion to use them at home. Our first acquaintance with them comes not from our mother's lips or from the talk of our classmates, but from books that we read, lectures that we hear, or the more formal conversation of highly educated speakers who are discussing some particular topic in an elevated style. Such words are called "learned", and the difference between them and "popular" words is of great importance to a right understanding of language.
The difference between popular and learned words may be easily seen in a few examples. We may describe a girl as “lively” or as "vivacious." In the first case, we are using a native English word formed from the familiar noun life. In the latter, we are using a Latin derivative which has exactly the same meaning. Yet the atmosphere of the two words is quite different. No one ever got the adjective lively out of a book. It is a part of everybody's vocabulary. We cannot remember a time when we did not know it, and we feel sure that we learned it long before we were able to read. On the other hand, we must have passed several years of our lives before learning the word vivacious. We may even remember the first time that we saw it in print or heard it from some grown-up friend. Both lively and vivacious are good English words, but Lively is popular and vivacious is learned.
The terms "popular" and "learned,” as applied to words, are not absolute definitions. No two persons have the same stock of words, and the same word may be "popular" in one man's vocabulary and "learned in another's. There are also different grades of "popularity." Still, the classification into "learned" and "popular" is convenient and sound. Different opinions may come up as to the classification of any particular word, but there can be no difference of opinion about the general principle. We must be careful, however, to avoid misconception. When we call a word "popular," we do not mean that it is a favorite word, but simply that it belongs to the people as a whole that is, it is everybody's word, not the possession of a limited number. When we call a word "learned” we do not mean that it is used by learned persons alone, but simply that its presence in the English vocabulary is due to books and the cultivation of literature rather than to the actual needs of ordinary conversation.