Vaughan’s Vocabulary

Don Vaughan provides infrequently used words to strengthen your vocabulary.

One of the things I teach in the interpersonal communication class is that words, for the most part, have only an arbitrary connection to their meanings.

For example, the word communication could have just as easily been called “vaughaning.” “Vaughaning,” of course, means absolutely nothing, but would mean something if it had been assigned meanings.

This is why language is mostly arbitrary. Words literally mean whatever they’ve been chosen for them to mean. Morten Christensen and Simon Kirby point out in “Language Evolution” that language evolved from early humans’ use of gestures to communicate. Words evolved from such gestures as shoulders shrugging, which communicates uncertainty, indifference or aloofness.

Kory Floyd, a professor at the University of Arizona, points out that language can be arbitrary precisely because it is symbolic. Words only symbolize their meanings; they don’t constitute their meanings themselves, onomatopoeia being an exception.

1. Which ones are onomatopoetic words?

A. buzz

B. meow

C. splash

D. click

E. ring

2. arbitrary (AR-buh-trer-ee)

A. determined by chance, whim or impulse

B. clearly understood

C. easily remembered

D. None of the above

According to Floyd, an onomatopoeia is a word formed by imitating the sound associated with its meaning. These are all onomatopoetic words because their sounds reflect their meanings. Floyd says these types of words serve as an icon or a representation of the meaning they symbolize, rather than an arbitrary one. All five apply to No. 1. Aside from A, arbitrary means based on or subject to individual judgment or preference.

3. denotative meaning (DEE-no-ta-tiv)

A. dictionary meaning

B. denoting or tending to denote

C. telltale

D. All of the above

4. connotative meaning (KAH-nuh-ta-tiv)

A. communicating superbly

B. moiety

C. a word’s implied or secondary meaning, in addition to its literal meaning

D. indurate

Denotative is D. Connotative is C.

Last week’s mystery word is strumpet.

This week’s mystery word to solve can be used to describe language that has more than one possible meaning. Interestingly, the word’s four syllables’ sounds are words.

Don R. Vaughan, Ph.D., of Eupora is a speech and theater professor at East Mississippi Community College, Golden Triangle. Contact him at