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When I Wear High Heels, I Have a Great Vocabulary

November 29, 2009

Nope, that’s not me talking in the title. I never wear high heels, preferring Converse and other comfortable footwear. That’s the actor, Meg Ryan. She continues, saying that she speaks in paragraphs when she’s wearing heels and is more eloquent. She plans, she says, to wear high heels more often. I don’t wear fancy shoes, but I do work on my vocabulary. As I write, I think about the words I’m using and whether any of them are too difficult for some of my target audience.

Since I’m writing about student success, I know that I must be cognizant—see how easily these fancy words slip in?—of the vocabulary I use. I also realize that while I don’t want my posts to be filled with such density of difficulty that no one would want to read them, much less be able to understand what I’m saying, I also don’t want to dumb them down by removing words it might be good for someone to be reminded of. In my posts of November 26 and 27, there are some possible vocabulary words I left in deliberately, knowing they would be very familiar to some folks and not so much so to others. If you don’t know them, I recommend looking them up. There are also some there that can be challenging to spell, including one, inundated, that is a personal spelling bugaboo of mine. I always want to spell it with a double n at the beginning:

acquisitiveness
brouhaha
siren voices
(a reference to Greek mythology)
inundated
immodest
antagonizing
palpable
hamper
(a word with more than one meaning, used as a verb in the post)
idiosyncratic
iconoclastic

Some vocabulary is acquired by osmosis. One of my students, a science teacher-in-training, didn’t know that this scientific term referring to the movement of molecules through a semipermeable membrane can also be used to refer to things that enter the human brain from the environment, picked up from conversations and pleasure reading and television and movies, for example. Here are five “vocabulary words” I wrote down as I watched the children‘s movie, Chicken Little: gibberish, intentions, overreaction, confusion, confounding. A child encountering them in the context of the movie may well understand them and perhaps even add them to her or his vocabulary. Much vocabulary acquisition happens deliberately, though, and requires conscious effort, especially when you’re studying a textbook.

It isn’t just textbooks that provide opportunities to build vocabulary. I tested this recently when I picked a book at random from a shopping cart filled with ten-cent books at a thrift store in Ohio. The book I grabbed was Jonnie Jacobs‘ (2005, 2007) mystery, The Only Suspect (New York: Pinnacle Books). Again at random, I opened the book and went to the start of the nearest chapter. In Chapter 22, on pages 170-174, I found the following words:

succumbed
apprehension
paltry
inescapable
self-loathing
jeopardize

reproachful

As I glanced at the first page of the next chapter, I saw disdainful. These are all useful words for someone to know and be able to use. Reading a chapter and picking out possible vocabularly words is a great exercise to do with a chapter in a textbook or a novel, alone or with a group. Read over a section and determine words that need clarification or definition in order to understand the meaning. Look them up and make sure you understand everything before you start studying.

Another hint that will help you improve your vocabulary is to actually look unfamiliar words up and write them—and their definitions—in a vocabulary journal. This sounds a little silly, but it can help you add them to your working words. Sometimes it’s okay to simply get the gist (a great word that I see misspelled often, meaning the main point) of what you are reading, but sometimes you only think you know. It’s so easy to look up a word, especially when you’re reading something online, that there isn’t much of an excuse not to.

One of the things I find most striking about the work of inexperienced writers is their impoverished vocabulary. Students who don‘t have the necessary words to express their thoughts, or are uncertain about the meaning of particular words, are less likely to be able to say what they mean. Just as challenging is students‘ use of words that are not quite right or whose meaning they think they understand, but really don’t. My advice is to be very careful about using the thesaurus feature on the computer. Because English is a language with many words borrowed from other languages, it is also a language with many shades of meaning and one word cannot always be substituted for another even if the thesaurus suggests it.

And a final hint: subscribe to a word of the day email. I love wordsmith.org since I learn new words from it just about every week. Sometimes I know all of the words, but I’m surprised by how often the word of the day is one I’m unfamiliar with. This week I learned doggo, an adverb meaning still and quiet. I don’t know when I’ll use it, but I sure do like it. And here’s a vocabularly word for you: stiletto, meaning high heel, named after the stiletto dagger and its long thin blade. Bet you didn’t think I’d ever get back to Meg Ryan, did you?

Make a list of at least five words—with definitions—that you’d like to add to your speaking and writing vocabulary so that you can use them with confidence. These might be words that you are not sure how to pronounce, or whose meaning you are a bit fuzzy about, or just ones you think would be fun to know. Do this weekly, making a deliberate effort to use your new words in your everyday life in and out of school.

Words are things, and a small drop of ink falling like dew upon a thought produces that which makes thousands and perhaps millions think.
• Lord Byron

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