[Tipster] The Discipline of Learning Words

tipster post Jan 03, 2023

At age 22, I received my most cherished and memorable Christmas gift: The Oxford English Dictionary (or OED) on CD-ROM.

Any nerves I had about marrying my fiancé (now husband) just a few days later were calmed by the thoughtfulness of that gift. He got me.

On numerous occasions, he heard me joke about wanting to be a lexicographer. Words fascinated me.

Partly because as a high school student, I bombed the vocab section of the PSAT.

My embarrassment fueled a discipline of dictionary reading. I’d underline words I didn’t know. Study their meaning and etymology. And use them in sentences until I felt like I had mastered them.

A Trusted Companion: The OED

During that period, Webster’s was a fun pal. But in college when I pursued an English degree, the OED was my trusted companion.

The OED isn’t just a dictionary. It a historical account of every English word over a millennium.

Each word is illustrated with quotes to show its multiple uses and how the word has evolved. (You can now subscribe to the cloud-based OED for $1000 a year. Adios, CD-ROM.)

I turned to the OED to understand the multiple meanings one word could convey in a line of poetry. Or to clarify the true intent of a character’s words. Or to dig at the deeper truths an author was exploring.

Know Thy Words

As a writer, you likely are choosy about your words. Sentences can stall as you search for the “perfect” word--that word with purposeful sound and meaning.

That’s why we read and look up words we don’t know: to enrich our writing.

Dave and I started the Word of the Episode segment at the end of our podcasts to challenge ourselves to slow down in our reading—to truly learn new words.

In the segment, we each share a word that stood out from our reading the previous week.

Sometimes the words are obscure, words so specific you’d rarely use them, like “aubade” (a poem or piece of music appropriate to the dawn or early morning).
Sometimes we are struck by the sound of a word, like “frondescence” (foliage) or how an author has paired a common word to create an image, like Cormac McCarthy does with “purgatorial”: “purgatorial terrain.”

The Danger of Misused Words

Most often Dave and I share words we think we know. But as we dig into their definitions and use them in a sentence, we realize there’s a subtlety to the words we’ve missed.

And we’ve unintentionally misused them.

For instance, “vaunted,” I thought had a positive connotation that generally meant “highly praised.”

But its etymology points to a negative connotation. It is derived from vanus, which means “vain.” Beginning in the 15th century, it meant to brag or boast of one’s own successes.

Not to vaunt, but I’m glad I took the time to learn its true meaning.

We often say that the best writers read…a lot. And those readers slow down to learn the words they don’t know.

And as these readers turn to writing and use a new word, they slow down yet again to make sure they are using that word correctly.

The meaning of your prose is at stake. And so is your credibility.

So buckle up—look up and learn a new word or two—and write.



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