To Bump Up Your Vocabulary, Do This

An Entry from My Word Power Book (Photo: viv)

THE advice is not new: to enhance your vocabulary, read. And it’s not new precisely because it’s the only way you can increase your wordpower. You can’t possibly keep a well-stocked pantry if you don’t visit the grocer’s.

There’s more to reading, though, than merely running your eyes over words to process a news article, follow a story, or decipher a poem (at least, at the most basic level). Something else must go on that demands just that extra bit of effort: you keep a wordpower book, home to all the new, unfamiliar words that you encounter in your reading.

Here’s one of mine, from Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa:

#1042. Fata Morgana (n) –  a mirage

And another, from a Sunday Review piece Colum McCann wrote for The New York Times called What Baseball Does to the Soul (March 30, 2012):

#1044. saudade (n) –   a feeling of longing, melancholy, or nostalgia that is supposedly characteristic of the Portuguese or Brazilian temperament 

I like to number my entries because it gives me a sense of progress, a secure confidence even—not unlike the sort that comes with a swelling bank account. The only difference is that a drawdown on the bank account diminishes its value, but doing the same from your wordpower book can only be a good thing. You’re making a brand new lexical attempt, filling out a sentence with what you think would be the precise word.

And that should be the purpose of enlarging our vocabulary through reading. “This is not in order to use complex or pretentious phrases,” writes mystery writer P.D. James, “but to have available precisely the right word for every sentence.” The advice sounds straightforward enough—a wide vocabulary feeds the writing soul, but it’s equally true for the reading mind.

Reading The Great Gatsby in Japanese, I find my eyes laboring over the lines, words that I don’t know or half-know travel through my mind soundless, unlike the others that move with a certain music. There’s no way I can ever know or learn them unless I get cracking on my wordpower exercise—in this case, for my Japanese study, it’s my Numbers spreadsheet I turn to, not a vocabulary book. The progress is slow, but it’s real, rewarding work—a crowded 170 new entries from just four pages of my Haruki Murakami translation.

If this sounds arduous, just remember you’re walking down the path of knowing versus stagnation, enlightenment versus ignorance. Besides, it’s not exactly hard work, it just takes time. And if all this is still too difficult, go on, blame it on plain old sloth.

This past week, my IB student showed up to class with poetry blues: she needed help with Seamus Heaney’s Blackberry-Picking.

“Let’s see,” I began class. “Did you look up the words you don’t know?”

No, and there they were: briar, cache, byre.

“What about Bluebeard?” I asked. No, she didn’t go there, and so together we did, to our Oxford which flashed two entries:

  • a character in a tale by Charles Perrault …
  • a man who murders his wife

Only then, plus further illumination on the Bluebeard tale from me, did she appreciate Heaney’s imagery of how the thorn-pricked blackberry-picking palms of the poet and his friends were as “sticky as Bluebeard’s.”

What’s the lesson behind our Bluebeard moment? Every new word, every unfamiliar fact or trivia that surfaces in our reading deserves the vocabulary treatment. Otherwise, Princess Diana would forever be the sister of Prince Charles—which was exactly what a student had thought while swimming through a comprehension passage on fame several years ago, until she was nudged out of her half-dazed, half-guessing way.


Related: How To Increase Your Word Power

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