vocabulary building
May 18, 2005 6:54 AM   Subscribe

I'm pretty verbose, but I don't think my vocabulary has grown much in years. And I'd like to build it up.

I'm looking for helpful resources. I'm fine with common words, and I'm not particularly interested in wacky, obsucure words that no one uses (except to brag about their huge vocabulary. Example: pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis). It's the in-between words that I want to bulk up on -- those words that may be a little literary or highbrow but which are still useful, i.e. parsimonious, martinet, and quittance. I know how to use a thesaurus and dictionary. But I'm wondering if anyone knows any other useful resources.
posted by grumblebee to Writing & Language (23 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Here's another thread on this that might help you out.
posted by nitsuj at 6:57 AM on May 18, 2005

My advice would be to actually read some literature that uses those kinds of words, with a dictionary close by if necessary. Try Martin Amis or Umberto Eco.
posted by biffa at 7:14 AM on May 18, 2005

Have you looked into the Highly selective dictionary for the extraordinarily literate? It may lean a little to wacky and obscure words.

Stephen King, in On Writing, pegs Lovecraft, T. Coraghessan Boyle, and Cormac McCarthy as "people who haven't missed a multiple-choice answer in Wilfred Funk's It Pays to Increase Your Word Power in oh, thirty years or so"; those authors might be worth looking into.
posted by Jeanne at 7:17 AM on May 18, 2005

You might try reading some of the more literate magazines. Take a subscription to The New Yorker or Atlantic Monthly, for instance. There are a few fiction writers who use more recondite vocabulary, but for the most part, fiction will use the vocabulary of its characters, so unless the protagonist is an English professor or SAT coach, you're more likely to get new words from non-fiction.
posted by anapestic at 7:38 AM on May 18, 2005

Get a word of the day calendar for your desk and try to use each word 3 times.
posted by trbrts at 7:55 AM on May 18, 2005

David Foster Wallace, Jeannette Winterson, Thomas Pynchon, Gene Wolfe, Jorge Luis Borges....
posted by matildaben at 8:16 AM on May 18, 2005

Read. It's the only way to go it.
posted by orthogonality at 8:50 AM on May 18, 2005

Yep, reading is the way to go. Now in my case I know what the words mean but I don't really use them in conversation because the people I converse with (at work, among friends and even family members) would think I was showing off or trying to make them look stupid, which is a shame when you think about it. Oh well...
posted by govtdrone at 9:09 AM on May 18, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers so far, but the "just read" ones don't help. I read constantly (books plus The New Yorker, etc.) I'm looking for a more systematic approach -- something like 10 new words to learn each week.

All the word-a-day resources I've looked for seem to go for Guinness Book sort of novelty -- long words that nobody uses. I'm looking for words in that narrow region: ones that lie between the totally obscure and the common.

My guess is that my best bet is a thesaurus (make my own lists), but I was wondering if there was anything else out there.
posted by grumblebee at 9:10 AM on May 18, 2005

You might want to subscribe to A Word A Day. I find that some of the words are familiar and some are completely new, so I think it'll meet your needs. Since it comes via email, so you don't have to do any work or remember to look anything up.
posted by stefanie at 9:19 AM on May 18, 2005

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day will email you a new word each day. Sometimes they're dumb, but recent hits include bloviate, callithump, and campanologist. I like their "hear this word spoken" feature as well, as my ability to decode pronuciation notation is quite poor.
posted by CaptApollo at 9:23 AM on May 18, 2005

I've found word of the day RSS feeds to be less intrusive. If you do subscribe to an emailing, don't sort them into separate folders. I used to get various words of the day and I shunted them into a special inbox. Which I then never read.

Write down words you don't know as you read, and be sure to look them all up later. Learn etymologies and senses, not canned definitions. (Take a look at Samuel Johnson's dictionary sometime. He gives literal meanings first, which is a practice I wish modern dictionaries would follow. For example, "ardent" literally means aflame, with other senses metaphorical expansions on that notion.)

The Macintosh program Genius has been very helpful for me in learning Spanish and Latin vocabulary words. It's a bit of freeware that is essentially just a flashcard program, but with very smart and simple prioritizing, and using "graduated interval recall," which essentially means that something learned stays learned. So if you have words you don't know, plug them in there. Just the act of creating the vocabulary files helps you learn.
posted by yesno at 9:54 AM on May 18, 2005

John Crowley and Tom Robbins are two more authors who're good to read with a dictionary at hand.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 10:13 AM on May 18, 2005

To echo others: read, read and read. Read novels, non-fiction, literary magazines, anything that isn't pulp, lowbrow stuff. Notice the words you don't understand; look them up and make a conscious effort to remember them. Start using them as soon as possible, because there's no better way to really nail down a new word in your vocabulary.

And use the best dictionary for word-lovers.
posted by Decani at 10:39 AM on May 18, 2005

Crossword puzzles, particularly hard ones like the NYTimes Sunday puzzle are good.
posted by doctor_negative at 11:31 AM on May 18, 2005

In case anyone else was interested, here's a link for Genius.
posted by onalark at 2:05 PM on May 18, 2005

I recommend a daily visit to our own Mo Nickel's most informative site.
posted by Lynsey at 4:36 PM on May 18, 2005

The problem with reading is the poor phonetics of some words you've never heard before, so you take away an incorrect pronunciation. What about good aural resources?

One of my favourites is listening to Monty Burns in The Simpsons. :)
posted by -harlequin- at 5:50 PM on May 18, 2005

(I know you can look up how to pronounce the word if you're unsure, but I find that, well, I don't... :)
posted by -harlequin- at 5:52 PM on May 18, 2005

Read, read more, and take the time to look up words with which you are unfamiliar--read the New Yorker. Also, you may want to take a look at how best to use words. Brevity is beauty. Your question is a bit verbose Are you sure that is what you meant when you said you were "pretty verbose", Good luck with the reading.
posted by rmhsinc at 6:10 PM on May 18, 2005

I went through a phase where I played a lot of Scrabble. I joined a club with a bunch of people who played in tournaments frequently. Not only did it pull a lot of half-forgotten words out of the corners of my mind, but when other people would play words I didn't know, I asked them what they meant. I also played on my Palm with a Scrabble dictionary handy - you don't learn complex definitions or etymologies, but getting in the habit of thinking of alternative words improved my vocab, at least a little.
posted by bendy at 9:50 PM on May 18, 2005

Response by poster: rmhsinc, I don't understand your comment. One of the definitions of "verbose" is "given to wordiness," which is what I meant:

I'm pretty verbose, but I don't think my vocabulary has grown much in years...

I'm pretty given to wordiness, but I don't think my vocabulary has grown much in years.

And I don't see how my question was too long (you imply that it lacked brevity). I explained what I wanted and why I wanted it. Then I left the room.
posted by grumblebee at 5:35 AM on May 19, 2005

I had the same goal a few years ago. I started making a note of words I came across that I didn't know or cases where the words were used in a different sense than I knew them (the word "catholic," with a small "c," is a good example).

My personal strategy has been to avoid the crossword or Scrabble route, since they emphasize more obscure words and they don't provide much context. I eventually started to avoid words that were too specific to a certain domain. Checking for the number of hits on Google will give you a pretty good idea of how often a word is used, as will WordCount.

At first, I'd use a 3x5 card as a bookmark and then dump the words into a computer when I finished the book. Or if I was reading near a computer or had my palm pilot handy, I'd just enter them directly. I use a meta-search dictionary called OneLook to get definitions. Since you're curious about pronunciation, OneLook links to Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary for that. If I had it to do over again, I would have written down the sentences containing the words, since it is nice to have lots of context, when you get around to learning the words.

After a few years of collecting words and definitions, I realized that I still hadn't *learned* them. To do that, I started using a program called VTrain, which is a Windows program, similar to the OS X program Genius, mentioned above. I tested by looking at the definition and then trying to come up with the word. I keep meaning to go back and test myself in the other direction too, but I haven't gotten around to it. I think that some sort of matching or multiple choice format might be useful too. In any case, I can now recognize the words and remember their definitions, when I run across them, which is what I was going for. The process may sound tedious, but it was gratifying. Once I started learning them, I seemed to run across them left and right.

In case it might be of some help to you (or others), I've posted my personal word list.
posted by xulu at 9:39 AM on May 19, 2005

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