Vocabulary Words

It’s never too late to expand your vocabulary.

I learned to read in the summer between first and second grades.

I’d gotten the basics with the Dick and Jane books in first grade. Back in those days (the mid 60s), kids weren’t learning to read at home with their parents, by watching Sesame Street, or in kindergarten. It was first grade and beyond or pretty much nothing.

Unless you had a thirst for more, which I did. I wasn’t a popular kid — I had a few local neighborhood friends, but that was it. At school, I was one of the outcast kids — a nerd, as we’d say today. I wasn’t a physical kid. Kick the Can and Running Bases was the extent of my athleticism. So what else was left? Reading.

After discovering the joys of reading, I was hungry for more. My mother recommended that I read the Nancy Drew books that she’d grown up with. Nancy Drew books are a big step up from Fun with Dick and Jane. I’d ride my bike (without a helmet on!) the mile or so to the local library (in those days, a kid could get around pretty good by herself, without fear of predators), take out a book, and ride home. I’d then annoy my mother for the next few days by asking her every single word I didn’t know.

There were a lot of them.

Finally, she had enough. “Sound out the word like you learned in school,” she instructed. “Get the meaning from the sentence.” It took some practice, but pretty soon I got the hang of it.

I figured out that Nancy’s pumps were shoes and that a chum was a friend. Of course, I also thought the word determined was pronounced deter-mined (short e in dEter, long I in mIned). That went on for a few years. Nancy Drew was always determining things and my “sound it out” skills simply failed me for that one.

I enjoyed the books and my reading skills improved. In my second grade year, a test showed I had fifth grade reading skills. In fifth grade, I achieved the highest score ever for all of New Jersey on a reading and comprehension test.

I might be bragging a little here, but that’s not my purpose. [Steps up onto soapbox.] My main purpose in relating this story is to show that it is possible for a youngster to get involved in reading to the point where reading becomes a self-sustaining task. The student reads because she likes to. In an effort to find more interesting things to read, she teaches herself the vocaulary in books consdered far beyond her age level. This, in turn, opens her to new ideas and turns on the wheels of free and independent thought. And it does incredible things for a student’s writing skills. After all, how can you be a bad writer when you consume so many expamples of good (or at least acceptable) writing? [Steps off soapbox.]

Almost forty years have passed. I still read as much as I can. I always have book on the table beside my bed — something to page through before passing out at the end of the day. Some days, when I have time and a good book at hand, I’ll get into what I call a “reading marathon.” That’s when I pick up a book and pretty much don’t put it down until it’s done. Otherwise, I’ll busy myself in the morning or evening with current events articles from Web sites I like or pieces in the few magazines I subscribe to (AOPA Pilot, Technology Today, Rotor & Wing, Vertical, and The Virginia Quarterly Review.

I’ve been concerned lately about my vocabulary. It seems to me that it just isn’t growing anymore. This has become all the more apparent as I read and hear words that I’m not quite sure of. Yes, I can still figure out what a word means by the sentence it’s in or the context in which it is used. But you have to really know the word to get the full meaning of what the author intended.

The word ubiquitous is a great example. Have you been listening to the news and commentary lately? I hear this word almost daily these days. Yet I’d never read a formal definition of the word and was left on my own to figure out what it meant. At first I wasn’t too concerned, but the more ubiquitous the word ubiquitous got, it became clear to me that I was missing something.

I bought a vocabulary CD and a few vocabulary books. But the trouble with these tools is that they present the words some author thinks you don’t know but should. My problem is that I knew about half the words, was curious about a quarter of the words, and didn’t give a damn about the rest.

So I started writing down words I’m not completely sure of as I encounter them in books and articles. Yesterday, as I read P.D. James’s Unnatural Causes, I wrote down 23 of them.

Oxford New American English DictionaryNow I’ll use the Dictionary application that comes with Mac OS X Tiger to look them up. The Dictionary in my Mac OS X installation has words and definitions from The Oxford American Dictionaries. (I usually use the Dictionary widget, which has the same source of information, but I want to do some copying and pasting here, so I’ll stick with the app.)

Learn with me.

cosset: verb; care for and protect in an overindulgent way.

somnambulant: adjective; sleepwalking

gules: noun; red, as a heraldic tincture

vulpine: adjective; of or relating to a fox or foxes

spurious: adjective; not being what it purports to be; false or fake

histrionics: noun; exaggerated dramatic behavior designed to attract attention; dramatic performance; theater

innocuous: adjective; not harmful or offensive

lubricious: adjective; offensively displaying or intended to arouse sexual desire.

viva voce: noun; Brit. an oral examination, typically for an academic qualification

numinous: adjective; having a strong religious or spiritual quality; indicating or suggesting the presence of a divinity

helot: noun; a member of a class of serfs in ancient Sparta, intermediate in status between slaves and citizens

moue: noun; a pouting expression used to convey annoyance or distaste

Eumenides: Greek Mythology; a name given to the Furies. The Eumenides probably originated as well-disposed deities of fertility, whose name was given to the Furies either by confusion or euphemistically.

capitulation: noun; the action of surrendering or ceasing to resist an opponent or demand

syncopate: displace the beats or accents in (music or a rhythm) so that strong beats become weak and vice versa

doldrums: plural noun; low spirits; a feeling of boredom or depression

amorphous: adjective; without a clearly defined shape or form

éclat: noun; brilliant display or effect

miasma: noun; poetic/literary; a highly unpleasant or unhealthy smell or vapor

truculent: adjective; eager or quick to argue or fight; aggressively defiant

shibboleth: noun; a custom, principle, or belief distinguishing a particular class or group of people, esp. a long-standing one regarded as outmoded or no longer important

innate: adjective; inborn; natural

indolent: adjective; wanting to avoid activity or exertion; lazy

One thought on “Vocabulary Words

  1. Ms. Langer has created a great list of vocabulary words! And she’s right that no amount of good reader instincts can replace a good dictionary, especially one with derivations. Often I’ve checked a definition for a word whose primary definition I knew, but that wasn’t quite making sense in the verbal environment where I saw it. Usually, I find the author’s background gave him or her a different definition that I’d never have figured out on my own, and could only have found in that four-pound dictionary. (And another cheer goes up for electronic dictionaries and the Web!)

What do you think?