Tuesday, November 8, 2011

How to Build Vocabulary

                                                     James Murray, editor of the Oxford English Dictionary

Right now I'm tutoring a girl who is trying to improve her vocabulary. Having a big vocabulary is important on a lot of standardized tests, so it's a common obsession of parents and teachers.

When I was in elementary school, we had a series of books in the Word Wealth series that were supposed to teach us vocabulary. We had to memorize the definitions and use the word in a sentence and so on: the usual drills. But I don't think it worked very well. I remember one word in particular: facetious. Word Wealth said that it meant, "inappropriately witty." I was sort of a class clown, dying to be witty at all times, and I couldn't imagine an inappropriate time to be witty, except maybe at a funeral or something. But apparently that's not the only time you could conceivably be "facetious." I kept asking my English teacher about it, and she really couldn't explain when you might say, appropriately, "I was just being facetious."

Many years later, though, I did understand what "facetious" meant and even started using it. It doesn't really mean "inappropriately witty," although that might be as close as you can get to defining its present usage. But when the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) was written, there was nothing pejorative (another vocabulary word that I struggled to understand) about the word "facetious": it meant "characterized by, or addicted to, pleasantry; jocose, jocular, waggish. Formerly often with laudatory sense: Witty, humorous, amusing..."
Ok, there's a slight hint there in the word "formerly" that facetious is not quite as great as it used to be. Maybe people are just too serious these days? After all, quotes the OED, "the medieval carvers were many of them facetious fellows." A guy named Mickelthwaite said that. Anybody with a name like that must have thought wit was always appropriate.

I've been thinking about all this as I strive to impart to my sixth-grade student the nuances of meaning of such words as "accede" or "abdicate." I told a long story about the abdication of Edward VIII, which he did to marry Mrs. Simpson,  a very interesting story in part because it led to Queen Elizabeth II becoming Queen, and it was the back-story in part to the whole drama about Charles and Diana and Camilla, and even to the marriage of William to a commoner. The royals have evidently learned from their history, although it took them a long time to get the message.

The problem was that for a twelve year old this story was not as rich as it was for me, because she could not remember the death of Diana or the whole drama surrounding it. I am beginning to think that words acquire their patina of meaning over a lifetime. All the times you have heard that word used, something "stuck" to it, and now for you that word has a very personal meaning. It's as if it picked up a scent from all its previous contexts.

Context is key. Learning words out of context is just rote memorization. I keep telling people that they just need to read a lot, to improve their vocabulary painlessly, but nobody really seems to want to do that. I guess it takes too much time, and it seems as if memorizing definitions is a short cut. But it doesn't really work: the word is not yours unless you have handled it, kept it in your pocket, got it out to look at it like a magic rock, thrown it at other people, kept it in a drawer of your desk.

One thing I like about the OED is that it gives you some of that fast, if you're in a hurry. You can look up any word and find out how somebody used it three hundred years ago. I just opened it at random and looked at the word "excavation." In 1751, somebody named Chambers wrote, "The excavation of the foundation of a building...is settled, by Palladio, at a sixth part of the height of the whole building." Palladio! Really? What a useful rule of thumb, for when I build my chicken house! But, is that just in Italy, or everywhere? What about on the Gulf Coast?

If the word "excavation" was new to me, just thinking about all this--how to really use it, and use the information associated with it--would make it MY word. A word doesn't exist in a vacuum. It comes trailing clouds of glory, as it were. There's no short cut to being able to feel that aura: you just have to read a lot, and if you're in a hurry, play with your magnifying glass and the OED.


1 comment:

  1. I loved studying vocabulary as a child, but I agree about the way meaning waxes with time and experience. I love this post! So thoughtful! Lucky girl you're tutoring.