Having an avid thirst to learn new words and expand one's vocabulary is the hallmark of a curious mind. Leonardo da Vinci, often consider the most curious man ever, recorded and defined some 9000 words in his notebooks during his lifetime. I am doing something similar by writing down a five word flash card every day and taking it around with me everywhere I go, as well as writing down every unknown word I come across in a notebook for a future look-up. Why? Because it is one of the most effective ways of accelerating one's intellect. Generally, one's vocabulary is a reasonably accurate metric for determining the concepts that an individual understands and is cognizant of, which is why it plays a significant role in aptitude tests. In the past year, 2010, I estimate that I have learned close to a thousand words. My scholastic abilities have sharpened as a result, particularly my writing and critical thinking.
Its interesting to see the importance that words play in an individual's life. And the same applies to a society as a whole: the collective public's awareness and perception of reality is defined by the depth of its lexicon.
It was George Orwell that observed that if a word is cut off from the standard dictionary, then the concept that that word expresses will soon either be forgotten or will become too vague to become meaningful.
The context of Orwell's observation was in a totalitarian state attempting to control the minds of the proletariat via the dictionary. So its somewhat surprising - well, to some people - that a similar process is occurring in real time, in fact, its always been happening. Currently there has been no deliberate dictionary modifications, although I have no doubt that some of our simpleton politicians in washington would have no trouble doing this if given the chance, but the vulgar masses have remained, like they always have, either ignorant of words or deceived as to what certain words mean. To give an example of the latter, the word "fascism" is being carelessly flung out to describe right-wing politics, as if a small and limited government is anything like what Mussolini envisioned in his manifesto. As to the former, there is no shortage of evidence for the inch wide vocabulary that cripples the masses. Just as the body needs a certain amount of oxygen and will suffocate if it doesn't, the people are suffering from an intellectual vacuum of creativity neurons and expressive cells. Even nominally educated adults have a shockingly shallow lexicon.
As I implied earlier, this is not a problem unique to our age. Quite the opposite in fact, as people probably know more than in any other era. But the aforementioned dearth still impairs our society. The schools are notorious for shutting down the curiosity in our youngsters that vitiates them for life. I myself do not have an answer to this, other than to work your own backside off, and cherish the ride that will be given to you for doing so.