The joys of becoming a word nerd

Posted: 18 February, 2013 in Reading, writing
Tags: , , , ,


While estimations of an average person’s vocabulary vary greatly (some sources have the number at 50,000 words while others say it’s almost half that) all agree that even those with a large vocabulary use only one-third to one-half of that in their everyday speech.

L. Ron Hubbard, in his book Dianetics, said it was essential for readers to understand the words they read.  He claimed that if you ever get to the end of the page and realise you haven’t taken anything in, it’s likely you have skimmed over a word you don’t know. When this happens your brain stays with that word, trying to decipher its meaning, even though your eyes have kept moving down the page.  This happens to me often so I always keep a dictionary on hand in case I come across a word I’m not familiar with.

The importance of knowing what a word means matters just as much to the writer as the reader. Should I be using the word amoral, where I have written immoral? Is my character afraid of being censured, or censored? There is a big difference and only knowing the correct definition of each word will ensure I get my point across to the reader.

Writer Catherine Drinker Bowen said, “Nothing is so appealing [to a writer] as the realisation he has come upon the right word.”  My vocabulary seems very limited when I’m struggling to find the right word. I know there must be a word to cover what I’m looking for but it’s not in my mental database.

So this year I’m going to expand my vocabulary.  Even learning one new word a week will give me an extra 50 words a year. If I could manage one word a day that’s an increase of over 350 words in a year.

To help increase my vocabulary I need to keep the following in mind:

  1. Repetition is the mother of learning:  Reading a definition once is not going to make it stick. I need to look at it a couple of times a day, or week, and review new words monthly so they quickly become part of my new linguistic library.
  2. Personalise new words: It isn’t enough to simply read a definition; I need to make the word mean something to me. Use new words in conversations or writing projects. Teach the definition to a friend or child. Relate the word to a person, situation or object so that when you come across that word again there will be an association that will bring the definition to mind.
  3. Learn as much as you can:  Looking into the etymology of a new word is a great way to get it to stick in your mind, and also introduce you to a range of related words, all using the same prefix or root. Is the word derived from the name of a person (eg. Spoonerism, named after William Archibald Spooner)?  In what language was the word first used? Latin/Greek/French/German/Middle English? Was the word coined by a writer, like Shakespeare?  The more trivia you can gather about a word, the better. There is nothing our brains love more than useless information.

There is something exciting about composing an article, essay or story and being able to find just the right word at just the right time. The more words I have in my head the greater chance I have of finding that right word.

It’s time to let my inner word nerd out of the closet.

  1. ericjbaker says:

    When I was much younger I decided I needed to learn all those words I often heard but didn’t understand. So I grabbed my Webster’s unabridged dictionary, started from the last page of Z, and declared i was going to work backward, writing the definitions of every word I’d heard but didn’t understand until I got to page 1. I become so distracted by all the cool words I hadn’t heard that I had filled up 6 or 7 pages of my notebook without getting 1/4 of the way through the first letter. That’s when I quit.

    I ought to try that again someday, but maybe show a little more discipline. And go with the abridged version.

    • RickyB says:

      LOL! I remember doing something similar. Then I would get so overwhelmed with words and I’d stop. That’s why I’ve settled for a word a week this time. If I take it a bit slower and give the words and their definitions a bit more time to sink it I won’t get so discouraged. You’re right – there are so many cool words out there to discover!

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