If the capacity for rational speech is the one feature that most distinctively sets us apart from other members of the animal kingdom, then the effective use of language should surely be among our highest individual priorities. Fortunately, most intelligent people do not have to be persuaded about the value of clear and precise communication. The message is more or less self-evident: if we wish to speak well, read well, and write well, we must gain control of words, the basic elements of all discourse. We need not aspire to professional careers as writers or scholars in order to profit from a good vocabulary. In practical terms alone, it is a plain fact that oral and written language skills are stepping-stones to advancement in almost every vocation that involves some intellectual challenge.
The good news is that it can be a wonderful adventure acquiring and honing verbal skills. Quite apart from any practical benefits, the study of words often becomes an absorbing quest, a compulsive game, a glorious obsession. Many of us become happy converts to the cause in childhood, and get hooked on words for life. Others, who perhaps had less encouragement at a tender age, will succumb to the enchantment of words as teenagers or adults. Incidentally, the phrase “enchantment of words” is more than just a metaphor, since words lie at the heart of all magical charms and incantations—they are the cherished tools of wizards and witch doctors. If you find words fascinating, you will be pleased to learn that fascinate is derived from Latin fascinum, a bewitching spell. The fascination of words can become a hard spell to break. Like peddlers of seductive drugs, purveyors of word magic should probably be required to flag their books and manuals with an ominous message: “WARNING: THIS COURSE OF STUDY MAY BE ADDICTIVE.”