Where can I find some colorful vocabulary?
November 2, 2010 4:07 PM   Subscribe

Where can I find some colorful vocabulary words/phrases for my college essays?

I am on a quest for words that are not necessarily SAT words but just vibrant and attractive and a better way of conveying thoughts. I have to write a lot of essays and it's annoying to use rudimentary words so where can I find some good ones?

for ex: kaleidoscopic, discordant, myriad, serial repetitiveness, juxtaposition, incessant

These aren't the best examples but hopefully you get my point.

posted by ptsampras14 to Education (29 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
posted by John Cohen at 4:09 PM on November 2, 2010

A good old-fashioned thesaurus can be good when used sparingly. I remember TA's calling people out for overdoing it.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 4:14 PM on November 2, 2010

The Phrontistery has a number of interesting words lists.
posted by Rhomboid at 4:15 PM on November 2, 2010

Don't do it! I teach college students and some of the worst essays I get are ones where students seem to have gone wild and crazy with a thesaurus.

You are better off looking for precise words rather than "vibrant and attractive" ones. Get the best word for the job. The way to do that is to draft your essay without worrying too much about vocabulary, then either reread it yourself, or get someone else to, and pay attention to anywhere you are unclear. If your thoughts are not clearly expressed, chances are it's partly a matter of imprecise vocabulary. THEN you can go to the thesaurus, or a dictionary, and try to find a better word. But don't choose one just because it sounds "fun". Choose the word that has the nuances you are looking for. Think about typical associations with the word. Think about common collocations the word is used in. Ask yourself whether those are associations you want the reader to make with the word in your context - do they reinforce your meaning, or do they distract from it?

Words you should particularly try to avoid are the really ambiguous ones like "thing", "matter", "issue", "think", "believe" (i.e. is it really a "belief" or is it an argument or a position, or a claim, or an understanding, etc) "people" (what people), and any fuzzy collective nouns for races, nationalities, genders, etc (ask yourself whether you really want to generalise that much, and whether you can back it up with data.)
posted by lollusc at 4:16 PM on November 2, 2010 [32 favorites]

Do you have a thesaurus? They are great resources for this sort of thing. You can also find them online. Most word processors (like Microsoft Word) will have built in thesauruses, but they can be a bit limited in their choices.

Be careful using thesauruses in writing, though. I often see students who clearly wrote an essay using ordinary words and wanted to "spice it up" by replacing some of the ordinary words with words they'd gotten from the thesaurus -- but the new words often had unintended extra meanings which made them a poor choice for the idea the student meant to express. Be careful to look up the new words, and ask your parents or someone who knows the word to check if it really fits your intended meaning.

Eloquence is about being able to use language well, to convey the idea you have in mind. It doesn't have to be about using complicated and unfamiliar words.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:18 PM on November 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

draft your essay without worrying too much about vocabulary, then either reread it yourself, or get someone else to, and pay attention to anywhere you are unclear.

This is a very good method.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:19 PM on November 2, 2010

Words are words. You should start by figuring out what ideas you want to convey. Then, if you can't come up with a good way to say what you mean, or you are in the copy-editing stages and you notice you're having trouble with word choice, that would be the time to bust out the thesaurus.

Peppering your college essays with five dollar words just because you think it's going to make you sound smarter is not going to do anything for you. And I say this as someone who has a deep, deep love for five dollar words.
posted by Sara C. at 4:22 PM on November 2, 2010

ask your parents or someone who knows the word to check if it really fits your intended meaning.

If you don't "really know" a word, don't use it in your college admissions essay.
posted by Sara C. at 4:23 PM on November 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yeah, don't do this. No matter how well you think you've incorporated the "colorful vocabulary", it'll be obvious to the admissions committee that the voice in your essay isn't your own. You won't sound smarter or more articulate.

Best of luck in your college search! I know it's stressful, but really, things will all work out.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 4:36 PM on November 2, 2010

Best answer: If you want help thinking up alternative ways of phrasing things, or just enjoy exploring language, Visual Thesaurus is quite fun.

But like people have said, don't overdo it with the "colorful" words. Using unusual words inappropriately will make you look green, not clever.
posted by philipy at 5:01 PM on November 2, 2010

Look at Final Tip #5: http://jmuadmissions.wordpress.com/2009/09/30/college-essays/

My husband works in college admissions. He spends months doing nothing but reading applications and making decisions. Trust me, admissions staff will see right through the fancy vocabulary, and might read you as insincere.

Be yourself, talk about something that matters, be unique!
posted by MorningPerson at 5:17 PM on November 2, 2010

Former English teacher here, now sometimes professional writer. For the love of the MLA & Chicago Stylebooks, just use natural language. Flowery writing will just annoy your profs who will likely leave comments in the margin about the need to clarify your thoughts. Even when big words are used with full fluency and in the proper context, it slows the reader down and makes the author sound like they're trying to be impressive. Affected language is never a good thing.

Want to impress your profs? Write well-structured arguments with proper citations, insightful analysis clearly and to the point.

It's pretty obvious when a student is trying out a word they don't fully understand. In high school, it was kind of sweet that they were trying to expand their vocab. In college, I imagine it would just make you look silly.
posted by smirkette at 5:24 PM on November 2, 2010

Oh, and if you *really* want to develop your vocabulary, read. A lot. Regularly. Fiction and non-fiction, mix it up, and you will acquire the kinds of words you're looking for. Better yet, you'll know when they sound right, and when they're not appropriate. If you're very serious about your academic work, read journal articles by professionals in your field to acquire your discipline's jargon and discourse patterns.
posted by smirkette at 5:29 PM on November 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

In my experience, it happens rarely that the thoughts are all there and only need to be conveyed in words. It is the act of wrestling with words that gives thoughts their final shape and place. Writing is research, it is not something you stick onto research for decoration.

Some of the very best introductions to difficult topics I know are written in simple words, austere even, but very cleverly organized. Most of what I do with my drafts is weeding; often I end up throwing out my dearest creations. Anything that glitters too much when I myself am looking is suspicious.

Writing concisely is very difficult but reading is difficult as well; a writer cannot usually afford to distract his readers with some incessant kaleidoscopic wordplay.

[that last sentence would have no chance in my final draft]

[writing and editing this post took me 25 minutes]
posted by Namlit at 5:46 PM on November 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

Read this:
There are roughly three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born there, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size, its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter--the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these trembling cities the greatest is the last--the city of final destination, the city that is a goal. It is this third city that accounts for New York’s high strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements. Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness, natives give it solidity and continuity, but the settlers give it passion. And whether it is a farmer arriving from a small town in Mississippi to escape the indignity of being observed by her neighbors, or a boy arriving from the Corn Belt with a manuscript in his suitcase and a pain in his heart, it makes no difference: each embraces New York with the intense excitement of first love, each absorbs New York with the fresh yes of an adventurer, each generates heat and light to dwarf the Consolidated Edison Company. . . .
That is the opening of one of the greatest essays written by one of the greatest essayists America has ever produced. Now, how many of these words are you unfamiliar with? "Poetical" is unusual, perhaps, but its meaning is easily figured out from its similarity to its relatives, and you may be unfamiliar with the Consolidated Edison Company, but its individual pieces are common nonetheless.

White's sentences are, as you put it, "vibrant and attractive," but they are not those things because he used words that weren't "rudimentary." Their vibrancy and attraction comes from White's attention to the shape not only of phrases and sentences, but also of paragraphs and, indeed, of the entire essay. Each word serves the whole; none are used in such a way that they distract from the larger piece. The result is that the essay is one of the most evocative and most memorable descriptions of what is, perhaps, the most described city in the world.

Sure, it's not a crime to use big words. But to be a good writer without them is often the harder thing to do. Set yourself a goal of crafting a fine essay that leaves an indelible impression in the minds of its readers using only words that are common and familiar. Chances are, you'll have set yourself apart from your peers who reached for the thesaurus to enliven their essays rather than focusing on crafting sentences and paragraphs that don't need life support.
posted by ocherdraco at 5:50 PM on November 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

"White," of course, being Elwyn Brooks White, better known to most of us as E. B.
posted by ocherdraco at 5:55 PM on November 2, 2010

That is the opening of one of the greatest essays written by one of the greatest essayists America has ever produced. Now, how many of these words are you unfamiliar with?

Actually, that passage has plenty of words that many 18-year-olds wouldn't readily think of: deportment, solidity, disposition, indignity, tidal (in that specialized sense). Even turbulence and devoured and incomparable (as well-known as they are) suggest that White was reaching for impressive words rather than using the first common word that came to mind.

I think people may be going too far in discouraging you from learning and using new vocab words. Just make sure you're using them right, and only use them when they allow you to express yourself better than the more common alternatives (not just to show off your knowledge of big words).
posted by John Cohen at 6:15 PM on November 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Always strive to convey your ideas simply and plainly. It is the knowledge that is gained from having read the words, rather than the words themselves, that matter.

In those two sentences above, I have avoided flowery language, yet used specific and less-common words to express more than flowery language could have. By comparison..

When writing an essay, it is of utmost importance to focus on conveying your ideas to the reader using efficient and affable methods, so that he or she can gain the knowledge which you are trying to impart, although they may (and most likely should) fail to retain the words themselves.

Same thing, but flowery. Gah. I wouldn't want to read that. There's also...

You should communicate as simply as possible. This will help the reader remember what you have said, even if they forget how you said it.

Not flowery, no unusual words, still gets the point across. Is this better than the first? It depends on your audience, really. The point here is that #1 and #3 both beat #2 to pieces.
posted by davejay at 7:01 PM on November 2, 2010

If you collect essay-words, just to use in essays, you are veeeerrrryyyy likely to use them just slightly wrong. And well-used everyday words are always better than big ones lumbering around awkwardly. You might instead think about naturally expanding your vocabulary... learning words can be fun, and when you've picked them up in context they are easier to use correctly.

As well as reading lots and lots, a great way to learn new words is to sign up to some word-of-the-day emails. Dictionary.com's is nice, as is A Word A Day. The Oxford English Dictionary also has one, but it's surprisingly lame.
posted by equivocator at 7:01 PM on November 2, 2010

In retrospect, #1 should have been "Always strive to convey your ideas simply and plainly. It is the knowledge gained from the words, rather than the words themselves, that matter." I need an editor.
posted by davejay at 7:02 PM on November 2, 2010

Best answer: Oh, one more thing: as a rule, introduce a new vocabulary word only if these criteria are met: you are using it properly, and it allows you to shorten your sentence.
posted by davejay at 7:03 PM on November 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oddly enough, I'm just in the middle of a break from marking first-year English essays. I have a few in the pile that strongly indicate gleeful thesaurus abuse. So...

I heartily second all of the advice above that encourages you to work on using precise (rather than colourful) language. You need to strive for clarity and conciseness in your writing; to do this, you should always try to choose the best word for the situation. Sometimes the best word will seem "vibrant and attractive" to you; sometimes it will not. Go with the word that's most appropriate to your purpose.

I also agree with smirkette that reading is probably the best way to expand your vocabulary. Read as wide a variety of writing as you can. You'll encounter unfamiliar words, and you'll encounter them in context, which means you'll have a better idea of not only what they mean but how to use them appropriately.

Good luck!
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 7:07 PM on November 2, 2010

FWIW, many of the problems that advanced college writers (and working adults) face with their prose have less to do with vocabulary so much as underlying issues of style and structure. Assuming you can get words on paper and have something to say about your topic, consider working through the principles Joseph Williams describes in his book Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace.
posted by 5Q7 at 7:48 PM on November 2, 2010

I occasionally like to keep a dictionary and notepad with me when I'm reading. I've encountered many unfamiliar words, only to vaguely understand their meaning from their context. These are usually the complex, precise words that are being advocated above. Look up the words that you suspect have rich meanings beyond what you can only guess, and write them down.
posted by to recite so charmingly at 7:50 PM on November 2, 2010

Best answer: The mot juste, a term coined by Flaubert, meaning exactly the right word, is something that can only be found after the thought is formed.
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:51 PM on November 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

"The only things creepier than a thesaurus are those little paperbacks college students too lazy to read the assigned novels buy around exam time." - Stephen King


While the article doesn't completely address your question, and while I didn't read all the responses, basically his point with that quote was, don't over do it. Using 'unused' words sounds cool sometimes, but other times, you just sound like a prick. =pp

I personally overdo it without even meaning to a lot of times which I think stems from just reading a lot. One thing you might try though, in answer to your question, would be to get a few word-of-the-day apps and things like that, or just start reading whenever you have the time.
posted by irishcoffee at 8:52 PM on November 2, 2010

As others have said, the important thing is to pay lots of attention to being clear and concise, and on having something true and interesting to say.

Nevertheless, if you're wanting to spice up your prose a little a good place to start might be with Constance Hale's Sin and Syntax.
posted by washburn at 10:26 PM on November 2, 2010

I heartily agree with the previous answers encouraging you to stick to clear, concise language in your essays.

However, since you would like to find ways to use more vibrant language in your writing, I'm going to suggest a longer-term, more roundabout approach:

* write lots of descriptive passages, just for your own enjoyment. Writing about things in the world around you will give you more opportunities to describe their specific vibrancy and beauty.

* do a lot of reading - with a fanatical focus on the kind of writing and word choice you have in mind. Go to the library and head for the literature section. Pluck books off the shelf and read a few paragraphs. Is the language beautiful and luscious? If so, take that book home. Copy a few passages. Write a few pages in a deliberate attempt to mimic that author's style. Skim the text for the most delicious words, and add them to a list of words to use in your own descriptive passages.

This will take a long time, and may not be useful in your college essays (at least for the next year or two), but it could give you the ability to use evocative words where they're appropriate as you develop your own voice and continue writing throughout the rest of your adult life.
posted by kristi at 10:03 AM on November 4, 2010

Be sure you know the academic word list. Apart from that, do lots of reading in your field and use the vocabulary you see the big boys (and girls) using. Professors tend to be a skittery lot that is unrewarding of undue creativity, so I would recommend you not go too far overboard.
posted by lhp81 at 6:33 AM on November 5, 2010

« Older Finding a good landlord in NYC   |   Products and Advice for Male Beard Coloring Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.