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The OED is on the tip of my tongue
March 24, 2014 11:02 AM   Subscribe

Like many people on this site, I read a lot and have a pretty large vocabulary. But, when I speak or write, I often feel like much of that vocabulary is hiding in a part of my brain that I can't get at. Please suggest tasks that will flex my active vocabulary-retrieval muscles.

I constantly have the maddening sense that the exact word I want is just out of reach -- I know I've heard and read it many times, I can even remember its general shape, but for the life of me I can't think what it is. These mostly tend to be polysyllabic words, often Latinate ones: misconception, apprehensive, trepidation, pinchbeck, rigorous, picaresque. (This is an actual list I made of words I've had trouble thinking of in the past few days. I keep a notebook of these words, but this doesn't seem to help make them more accessible.) I'd really love to have better access to this part of my vocabulary. What are some practical things I could do, for example games online or otherwise? "Crosswords" is an obvious idea, but most crosswords don't feature much of this kind of vocabulary. There are a lot of vocabulary quizzes online, but they tend to be about recognition rather than retrieval. What are some active advanced-vocabulary-retrieval games/activities/etc. I could try?
posted by zeri to Writing & Language (18 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
i never thought i'd be recommending the "readers' digest", but it at least used to have a regular feature "increase your wordpower [or something]" in the form of a test i usually aced. there may be an online resource for looking at all of these at once.

i know all of your words except "pinchbeck".
posted by bruce at 11:19 AM on March 24

There's a lot of good info about the tip of the tongue phenomenon at Wikipedia. I'm not surprised to read there that caffeine helps.

Buy some SAT vocabulary books or flashcards. They should be discounted because the test is being revised and the new vocabulary section is going to focus on a different set of words.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 11:21 AM on March 24

My coworkers get on me for using "big" words but I always insist on correcting them: I use specific words. We usually have a little conversation about synonyms and/or lateral thinking then, it's fun.

Train yourself to think about synonyms, I think that's a good way to loosen up the part of your brain where all those words live.

I love crosswords but I restrict myself to a very specific one (a single day, even) and just copy a stack of them at a time out of the library's archives. Do it this way to avoid 'most crosswords' because, yeah, crosswords is a great answer to this question.
posted by carsonb at 11:35 AM on March 24 [1 favorite]

Crosswords would also presumably improve your recall skills even if the vocabulary involved in practicing those skills isn't the same as that you will be using them on.
posted by mymbleth at 11:42 AM on March 24

Also came into suggest crosswords.
posted by Jahaza at 12:09 PM on March 24

Crosswords keep weird words in your forebrain, I love 'em!

Also, use the thesaurus. I find that I can get close to the word I want and the thesaurus will take me across the finish line.

Do some Miller Analogies tests (remember them from your SATs?)

Write. Writing really stretches that muscle.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:22 PM on March 24 [1 favorite]

If crosswords are your thing, great, but don't do them for a workout if you don't think they're fun. I have limited patience for them, myself. A lot of crossword words are barely real words... a lot of 3-letter Polynesian water birds; and even when the word in question is a real word that I'm happy to know and be reminded to use in conversation more often, I frequently find myself rolling my eyes at the stupid clues that refer to the general concept more than what the word really specifically means.

I like the idea of vocabulary quizzes better. Multiple choice is fun, because you're also reminding yourself what options a-e all mean. But also fun, cover up the answer options, and try to come up with as many words that mean that as you can, then see if any of your words are on their list.

Also, choose old-fashioned fiction for your fun reading; it's always nice to see "big words" used in context as if they were perfectly normal. One of my friends read nothing but Georgette Heyer novels her senior year and insisted she was studying for the SATs.
posted by aimedwander at 12:26 PM on March 24 [2 favorites]

Your mileage may vary, but I found that regularly playing Words With Friends and/or Scrabble greatly improved my ability to recall words in day-to-day conversation. The words I was using in Scrabble weren't necessarily the words I was using in conversation, but the mere act of searching my memory for them seemed to improve my overall verbal recall.
posted by yankeefog at 12:29 PM on March 24

I know I'm echo-chambering, but CROSSWORDS.

I bought the NYT crossword app and pretty much do them in any situation requiring waiting or patience. My brain is now naturally generating synonyms for everything and searching for the best, most precise word, always. It has made such a difference!

The app is $15 or so, but I'd spend that on a burrito and beer and the app is something I use every day and it is changing my brain in detectable ways. It also has archives.
posted by Punctual at 12:31 PM on March 24

Get a subscription to the New York Review of Books. The articles are interesting and every issue sends me to the dictionary (i.e. Google) at least a few times.

And maybe this exercises other mental muscles in coordination with vocabulary?
posted by paper chromatographologist at 12:41 PM on March 24

I'm in the don't-bother-with-crosswords camp. I used to love them, the harder the better, but I fell out of the habit 15 or so years ago after a couple of decades of addiction. I didn't find that they helped my real life vocabulary. I found that doing crosswords helped me do crosswords, which is not a diss at all, it's just that I don't think that's what you're looking for.

Although I have stopped reading on my kindle for other reasons, one thing that the e-book format does really well is hyper link from a word to the dictionary definition in one click. I learned the vast majority of my vocabulary from context and was surprised by how much I enjoyed looking up words I already knew and used. That this could be done without having to switch from my book to a dictionary made it even better, made me look up any word I couldn't rattle off a dictionary-quality definition for, and I think in fact increased my daily use vocabulary (although probably on a relatively temporary basis) because of the double-dip of context and definition.
posted by janey47 at 1:08 PM on March 24

Read Melville or Nabokov for one or two hours at a time.
posted by Iridic at 2:27 PM on March 24

Try cryptic crosswords rather than straight definition ones. The British broadsheet newspapers all carry them. The Times requires a subscription to the paper, and the Telegraph a subscription to the crossword club, in order to access theirs online; but the Guardian and the Independent seem to be more generous. (Apologies if either is geographically restricted; I'm in the UK so can't tell.)
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 2:56 PM on March 24 [1 favorite]

For writing contexts, I actually use a lot! I'll have a word in mind, but can't quite pull it from memory, so I plug a similar word into the thesaurus and often find the word I was trying to come up with. I suppose it can help build a vocabulary as well!
posted by wsquared at 3:16 PM on March 24

When I was in high school, I wore white Keds and wrote neat new words I came across on them. I also wrote words in the blank areas of my dictionary--every time I looked up a word, I read over all the ones I had previously looked up.

I was not Ms. Popularity (REALLY?!), but I have a hell of a vocabulary.
posted by thebrokedown at 8:44 PM on March 24

I don't think reading will do it because you are already reading. You need to do vocabulary practice exercises. You could look for an app, but I don't think there are any good ones (that's why i've been thinking of developing one myself). Alternatively you could put words into a quiz app like Quizlet. And you could do contests in the vocabulary/words section of the fun QuizUp contest app. Practice is what you need.
posted by Dansaman at 10:34 PM on March 24

I wanted to reiterate the aforementioned cryptic crosswords. Crosswords which test whether you know some trivia fact, or worse, mere synonyms are dull as hell. Cryptics force you to solve puzzles and you can get into some really obscure words.

Just Say No to 13. Newt (3)!
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 10:00 AM on March 25

Two suggestions:

1. Use spaced-repetition software to practice your new words. (I like Anki.) You can quiz yourself in at least three ways: show the definition and you have to give the word; show the word and you have to give the definition; show a sentence with the word left out, and you have to give the word. (You might want to give yourself a small hint on the last one, like the starting letter or a synonym.)

2. Pick up some good writing (or even bad writing) and skim until you come across a paragraph that interests you. Write out the paragraph longhand. Now go through and pick out some words and list as many possible substitutions as you can. Then go through that list and think about (maybe even write out) why each word is a better or worse fit for that sentence. If you want, repeat the process with a thesaurus in hand.
posted by kristi at 8:43 AM on March 27

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