I was taught a word once by a linguist. I can't remember it, but it would be very useful for a Google search I am trying to do to solve another question on a different StackExchange.

It was a similar word to vocabulary, but rather than refer to all the words a person knew, it referred to the set of words a person would choose to use in a particular situation. English speakers from different regions might select different words from the set of swimmers, trunks, cossies, bathers, while understanding they are all referring to the same thing - they are all in their vocabularies, but not in their [blank].

My recollection was the linguistics term was also a common English word, like class or style, which made it confusing when I first encountered it.

  • Do you mean all the terms that belong to the same "category"? For example, if I say "river" then: source, estuary, delta, affluent, bank, etc?
    – Alenanno
    Jul 24, 2011 at 17:21
  • If you do mean same "category" then "semantic field" might be the term you're looking for. But if I read your question correctly, what you're after is something like "active vocabulary" per other answers.
    – Henrik N
    Jul 24, 2011 at 20:27
  • @Henrik I was thinking about that as well, when I commented, but I don't think it fits...
    – Alenanno
    Jul 24, 2011 at 21:55
  • Thanks for your attempts. I have found the answer myself: register. StackExchange won't let me accept it for a couple of days/two days/48 hours. [Choose your own register :)] Jul 25, 2011 at 2:39
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    A related term is diction.
    – user28567
    May 1, 2014 at 1:36

5 Answers 5


I have found the word I was looking for.

In linguistics, a register is a variety of a language used for a particular purpose or in a particular social setting.

In hindsight, the definition I gave was roughly right, but the swimmers example seems to have been inappropriate and hence distracting. Sorry.

  • Unsurprisingly, adding "register" to my Google searches is NOT helping much :-( Thanks for nothing, linguists. :-) Jul 25, 2011 at 3:45
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    Actually, I could have given you register straight off. I was misled by your question giving a variety of dialectal terms with the implication a speaker might choose between them. To the extent that a person exercises choice of register, it usually means whether they use vernacular, standard, or academic words and syntax, not choice of which vernacular words to use. Jul 25, 2011 at 13:23

Not a standard technical distinction, but if I saw vocabulary and repertoire in the same sentence, I'd assume vocabulary is those words & meanings someone is capable of understanding, where repertoire means only those the person actually uses.

If OP will accept a two-word term, the most suitable is probably active vocabulary (as opposed to passive, being words understood but not used).

There is also productive vocabulary (normally contrasted with receptive), but I don't like that because "productive" in linguistics usually applies to a word or term to means it's often used to make new words or terms, or has its meaning easily stretched into to new areas.

This NGram shows active vocabulary is consistently used more than productive vocabulary. .

  • Apart from the fact that, at least as far as I know, it's not a Linguistics term, I'm not sure the word fits this situation. What I mean is that although it's true that the word might have gained a polysemic nature, for the same reason it's not specific but general.
    – Alenanno
    Jul 24, 2011 at 17:43
  • Well, linguists certainly use the term repertoire quite often, though I see no evidence of it being differentiated from vocabulary. I think OP's distinction is largely spurious, to be honest - if you don't know a word well enough to use it, I'm not convinced it means much to say you 'know' it. And do we really need a special term for "swear words a person knows but would never use"? I think for most purposes vocabulary does fine, and repertoire seems to be pretty much a synonym. Jul 24, 2011 at 18:43
  • I agree that if you don't know it well enough to use it, even if you do, it doesn't mean you do know it :D
    – Alenanno
    Jul 24, 2011 at 21:56
  • @Fumblefingers, I know exactly what Texans mean when they say "y'all", but I never use the expression myself. Some Texan may know exactly what "fortnight" means, but never use it themselves. I don't think that is a spurious distinction between the two concepts. (The question I am investigating is about how [word choice] affects people's perception of intelligence.) Jul 25, 2011 at 2:24
  • @Oddthinking: I overstated my case. Yes, it's interesting that people choose what vocabulary and syntax to use, since they normally have many alternatives available. But Americans in general don't say "fortnight" so much as Brits. I don't say "y'all" either. Many people don't say "fck". I don't see it's very significant that some people *rarely/never say some words at all. Not compared to the significance every time they speak that they might well have said things differently, but didn't. Jul 25, 2011 at 2:46

Productive Vocabulary

The body of words that a person feels comfortable using in writing and speech. Similar to expressive vocabulary. A person's productive vocabulary is usually smaller than their receptive or listening vocabulary.


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    I have heard distinctions between "active vocabulary" (= the words a person would choose from) and "passive vocabulary" (= the words a person knows, but doesn't use). Looks like another name for the "productive vocabulary" listed here, but I don't know which is more correct.
    – rumtscho
    Jul 24, 2011 at 20:05
  • I'd come across productive vocabulary before, but I don't like it because in linguistics productive normally has a different significance. Besides which, OP expected a single word. Anyway this NGram suggests active vocabulary is the more common term, which sounds good to me. Jul 25, 2011 at 2:58

I know this answer is years later but what about the word "lexicon" as the answer to your question? Lexicon


I have been grappling with a word for weeks now. It might be what you guys were looking for. Lexis? It's something in contrast to grammar, and maybe means vocabulary. But the idea is also "meaning". And that is semantics. Words have semantic context, i.e meaning. But sometimes you get collocations and idioms and these light verbs, look vs. have a look, walk vs. take a walk, operate, have an operation, do an operation etc. In these last cases, you can't say all the difference in meaning comes from "vocabulary." ?

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    Hello. nicolette. 'Lexicon / lexis' are usually used to refer to the sum total of words acknowledged to be in say the English language, not just those John Smith normally uses. Admittedly, that is a secondary definition, but fairly confusing. Feb 17, 2018 at 13:10

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