For years, people have been telling me I have a big vocabulary.
On one level, I acknowledge this. I know and use lots of words. I tend to notice when other people are using words incorrectly. (I rarely correct them.) On another level, I am acutely aware of just how jaw-droppingly expansive the english language is. Englishlive.ef.com explains:
If we want to talk about how many words there are in English, there are three key numbers to remember: more than a million total words, about 170,000 words in current use, and 20,000–30,000 words used by each individual person.
The number of words that one could learn is virtually endless. So, while I do know lots of words that aren’t super common, it’s nothing compared to what I don’t know. Recently, a friend remarked on the size of my vocabulary and asked how she might go about improving her own. This got me reflecting, and the reflecting led to me jotting some things down, and the jotting in turn gave way to an email, and the email led at last to the article now before you.
Before we dive into the four activities that made the most difference in helping me grow my vocabulary, let’s take a quick look at the different types of vocabulary.
Different types of vocabulary
Traditionally, two categories of vocabulary are distinguished: passive and active.
Passive vocabulary includes all the words you might recognize when, say, reading or listening to someone speak, but not words that you could wield confidently on your own. Active vocabulary, on the other hand, includes all of the words you can comfortably use when speaking or writing. Typically, when people say they want to improve their vocabulary, what they really mean is that they want to improve their active vocabulary; they want to expand their store of usable words.
For the purpose of this particular article, I think it’s useful to add two additional vocabulary types into the mix: etymological and catachrestic.
By etymological vocabulary, I mean a vocabulary that consists of words whose origin you can identify and explain. For instance, if you’ve studied Latin and encountered the word ‘puer,’ meaning ‘boy,’ then you can easily explain why the english word ‘puerile,’ childish or silly, means what it means.
And then there’s the catachrestic vocabulary — the one kind of vocabulary you definitely don’t want to grow. Catachrestic vocabulary is my phrase for the set of words we either passively misunderstand or actively misuse. This includes things like mistaking the word ‘reticent’ for the word ‘reluctant,’ or saying ‘run the gambit’ instead of the correct (and much more sensible) ‘run the gamut.’
Anyway, while each of the four activities I mention below supports and strengthens (or weakens, in the case of the catachrestic) different aspects of vocabulary, they tend to primarily target just one or two of them, and it helps to know which vocabulary you’re working on at any given time.
1. Read with a dictionary
Target vocabulary: Primarily targets passive and catachrestic vocabularies.
I started the practice of reading with a dictionary when I was studying for the SATs. I just couldn’t ever get into flashcards, but I knew I wanted to bump up my verbal score. So, I purchased a pocket Oxford English Dictionary, and anytime I encountered a word I didn’t know, I’d look it up.
Ultimately, this strategy worked. Over the course of a few months, I boosted my verbal score to a solid 750. By the time the SATs had come and gone, the practice of reading with a dictionary was habitual, and I kept at it for a long time.
A few interesting things happened as I engaged in this practice. First, I discovered just how many words I actually didn’t know. This might be obvious, but I never realized how many words I ignored, skipped over, or assumed I knew the meaning of until I started reading with a dictionary.
The other thing I noticed was that my mind began to automatically pair new words I learned with the books I first encountered them in. If I could pin the year I read the book, it served as an interesting (though not necessarily practical) reference point for how long I’d known the word.
For instance, I learned the word “avuncular” more than ten years ago when I was reading Hesse’s Demian. I learned the word “magnanimous” when I was reading Crime and Punishment in the summer of 2008. “Strabismus,” “nystagmus,” “annular,” and “dentate” all entered my vocabulary when I read Infinite Jest in 2014. (DFW had a ridiculous vocabulary.)
In the beginning of reading with a dictionary, I looked up every word I didn’t know. Nowadays, I’m not so rigorous, but I’d say I still reference a dictionary two or three times a day.
2. Build a personal dictionary and practice
Target vocabulary: Primarily targets active vocabulary.
A few years ago, in an attempt to improve my active vocabulary, I started building a personal dictionary in a Google doc that I called Words to Study, Learn, Love, Use, Forget, Remember. Initially, the document consisted of about a hundred entries. At the time of this writing, there are nearly 1,000.
My process for creating an entry goes like this:
- When I come across a word I don’t know the meaning of, I add it to my document.
- Later, I look up the word in the New Oxford American Dictionary application on my MacBook. I’ll use this as a guide, altering some of the language as I create my own definition.
- Lastly, at the bottom of the entry, I add any other words that belong to that particular word family.
Thus, my entry for the word ‘prig’ is as follows:
These initial steps provide me with a foundation for the next phase when I begin actively practicing the word. For this, I usually pick two or three words per week from my personal dictionary. I practice them in my writing and journal entries and then I find creative ways to weave them into conversation.
By the time the week is up, I’ve made active use of the words between 15–30 times — more than enough to gain basic proficiency. In the coming weeks, a combination of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon and continual, casual use of the words helps solidify them in my active vocabulary.
3. Study Indo-European languages (especially Latin)
Target vocabulary: Primarily targets etymological and passive vocabularies.
In the spring of my freshman year in college, I took a course on Greek and Roman literature. During one of my section classes, our eccentric teaching assistant was going off about how even educated native english speakers tend not to know the grammar of their mother tongue.
“If you really want to learn english,” he said, “study Latin.”
This piqued my interest. The next quarter, I took introductory Latin, and I immediately understood what he meant. Although english technically belongs to the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family, for various reasons, thousands of words that form the core english vocabulary are actually Latin in origin.
What studying Latin did for my vocabulary was give me additional context from which to understand unfamiliar english words that had a latinate origin. So, for instance, the word ‘invidious’ was no longer a random english word floating out in the ether whose meaning (‘likely to arouse anger or resentment’) I simply had to memorize. Rather, I could recognize it as a borrowing from the Latin invidere, ‘to envy or regard with ill will.’
This also meant that if I knew a word in Latin and saw its borrowing in english, I could guess its meaning with a high level of certainty. After my first year of Latin, I ended up studying several other Indo-European languages, including Greek, German, French, Italian, and even some Sanskrit. This gave me an insanely good foundation for learning and guessing english borrowings.
4. Get to know some roots and etymology
Target Vocabulary: Primarily targets etymological and passive vocabularies.
This last suggestion is straightforward: find out the history of unfamiliar words. Learn where they come from. Discover why they came to mean what they mean. My favorite etymological resource (and by far the most comprehensive free resource I know of) is Etymonline.com, a gigantic, online, searchable dictionary with its own app and Google extension.
How will understanding etymology help you expand your vocabulary? In the same way that knowing Latin roots gives you additional context for why latinate words in english mean what they mean, knowing a word’s origin provides associations that abet learning and recollection.
Take the word gallimaufry. When I first learned this word, my context for understanding why it meant what it meant was extremely limited. It didn’t contain any recognizable roots from any languages I’d knowingly studied, so that was no help. Also, it was too rare for me to expect that I’d see it enough and look it up enough for it to eventually stick.
So I searched for it on Etymonline. I learned it was actually a combination of two Old French words: 1) galer, meaning to make merry (think english ‘gallant’), and 2) mafrer, to eat a lot. This helped form a visual association in my mind of a large feast with lots of activity and a gigantic table filled with a jumble of foods of all types.
And, in a sense, this is exactly what a gallimaufry is: a hodgepodge, a confused mixture, a disorganized collection, a messy medley. Since learning this etymology, I haven’t had to look up gallimaufry again. I suspect you won’t have to, either.
A final word
I imagine that some readers came to this article hoping to find quick tips and tricks. I also imagine that encountering suggestions like “read with a dictionary for several years” or “learn Latin” feels irksome, disheartening, and impractical.
Here’s my apologia in two bullets:
- When you play learning as a long game, the compound interest and long-term rewards are astounding. When you play it looking for a fast fix of hacks and shortcuts, the results are commensurate.
- I’ve tried the hacks and shortcuts. They don’t work.