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So You Want a Power Vocabulary
You may think that improving your vocabulary will carry a high profit margin. You can make an impression with important people. People at parties will view you as erudite. Smart. Someone to know and admire. You can score big at SAT time. Suddenly those C pluses you've been earning will pale next to the 700 plus scores you receive. You think maybe you can cash in at the workplace. Your employers will assume you are an effective communicator and a boon to the company. (This will be especially true if your employers are insecure and don't understand a word you're saying.)
And romantically? Well, that all depends on whether your date or significant other has an equally ambitious vocabulary, whether polysyllabic words have a seductive effect. Some people like being with someone who sounds smarter than they do. After all, everyone has his own amorous triggers. It would seem, though, that learning a bunch of big fancy words with lots of syllables will set you up for life.
Right? Not exactly.
WHY BIG WORDS AREN'T EVERYTHING
The aim of a strong vocabulary should not be to impress other people. The goal of building a powerful vocabulary is to find the words that say exactly what you mean, in a manner that can be understood by those who are listening to you.
Even if you learn many more big words and you use them correctly, they may not be understood by your listener. What's the point of that? Big words -- uncommon, rarely used, unfamiliar, or fancy words -- are not always understood. (For the record, we're using fancy because that's what people often say when confronted with a speaker who has a proclivity for unnecessarily complicated conversation. "My, don't you talk fancy," we might say with no small amount of sarcasm.)
Big, fancy words can create a tension-filled atmosphere, making it difficult for people to converse at all. They may give an exchange a formal ring -- an anxiety-producing effect. This is because a large part of good communication has to do with creating a kind of intimacy. Big words may cause people to draw back from you. This is as true person to person, as it is speaker to audience. This intimacy is established through your choice of words, which convey both your thoughts, as well as the attitudes and feelings behind them. The fact is you can use technically correct words, but in so doing, convey an impression you don't intend.
Case in point: A co-worker approaches you with a solution to a problem. You think it won't work. You could say, "It's inefficacious to try and work this imbroglio out in such a fashion," but you'll sound like a superior snot. Or, you could try the more prosaic, "I think it's futile for us to try to work the problem out this way;' and sound frustrated but companionable. In short, by flinging around a lot of fancy words, you run the risk of losing your co-worker (not to mention friends or your partner), no matter that your words were basically accurate. Now, what do we mean by "basically"?
NUANCE IS EVERYTHING
nuance n. A subtle or slight degree of difference, as in meaning, color, or tone.
Nuance expresses not just the global point but the specific one as well. A simple example:
Elizabeth cackled at the look on her brother's face.
Elizabeth chuckled at the look on her brother's face.
Both cackled and chuckled are basically correct. This means they both potentially make sense. But they convey a subtle difference.
Let's go to the dictionary. (Not that it's the be-all, and end-all, which we'll get to later.)
cackle v. To make the shrill cry characteristic of a hen after laying an egg. n. Shrill, brittle laughter.
chuckle v. To laugh quietly or to oneself. To duck, or chuck as a hen. n.A quiet laugh of mild amusement or satisfaction.
Now, if Elizabeth had some hidden agenda causing her to receive something other than genuine pleasure from the look on her brother's face, then cackle would be fine. But if Elizabeth sincerely felt amused by her brother's expression, then chuckle is the way to go. The nuance of the word needs to fit the nuance of the context.
Nuances on the SAT and GRE. Knowing the basic definition of a word will be extremely helpful on the SATs and GRE. It will certainly eliminate options A and B (and if you're lucky, E), though it might leave you torn between C and D. What a nuisance, that nuance. Even in a test situation you may find yourself getting tripped up by the subtle meanings between words as they apply to context. Example:
It was difficult to imagine Ellen, a __ woman, as a psychologist; listening while others talked was not her style.
On this test question, you realize that you're looking for a word that indicates Ellen is a bad listener. That knocks out pessimistic, truculent, and depressed. Now you have boorish (insensitive) and voluble. Both might fit, but someone could be boorish without ignoring people, and there's nothing in the sentence to indicate she's a lout. It's clear she'd simply rather do the talking. Voluble means talkative. So there you are.
Certainly, when you are speaking, hoping to be understood, you will want to choose the word with the correct nuance as often as possible. And sometimes that word will be neither a long one, nor a seemingly interesting one. Look for the concise word for your meaning.
THE RISKS OF UNDISCIPLINED VOCABULARY USAGE
When you start learning the definitions of some new words, we wouldn't advise employing them until you've heard them used many times, and have a clear and precise sense of what they mean. Otherwise you could sound like a moron. Or worse, a pretentious, insecure jerk. Here are some common faux pas and our suggestions for ways to fix them.
* You might mispronounce the word. This is perfectly awful. The listener will get all caught up wondering if you know you made a mistake, if he should tell you, if you'll get irritated once he does, and thinking that perhaps you're not so well spoken after all. Before you know it, he won't hear a word you have to say.
* You might misuse the word. This is a particularly egregious mistake. The listener will get all caught up wondering if you know you made a mistake, if he should tell you, will you get irritated if he does, about how smart you are after all, why you are so insecure you have to use words you clearly don't understand -- and before you know it, he won't hear a word you have to say. This is probably just as well, since you're not saying what you intend anyway.
* You might use the word technically correctly but in the wrong situation to the wrong person, thereby completely turning off your listener. We're thinking of the doctor who was ambling through the park with a nonmedical friend along with each of their respective children. The doctor's son suddenly banged his head on a tree, and after feeling the child's skull, the doctor commented somberly, "Yes, a significant hematoma" The friend nodded, feeling significantly put off. The kid, he thought, has a big bump. I need this? The doctor's friend promptly developed a hemicrania (a headache).
The Etiquette of Vocabulary Ignorance
You may give the impression that you are a devoted wordsmith, with an impressive vocabulary, thus opening the door for your listener to use some fancy words of her own that you won't understand. Then what?
What to Do When Someone Uses a Word You Don't Know. We suggest saying, with a forthright air, "I don't know that one. Could you define the word?" The implication is that you already know tons. The impression is that you're therefore not embarrassed to not know this one. And the result is that you will escape looking like a charlatan, by the integument of your teeth.
What to Do When Your Listener Asks for a Word Meaning. Don't say, "You're kidding?!" or, "You don't know what that word means?" All of us have holes in our knowledge base. The name of the game is, Get Past the Moment Quickly Because Your Listener is Probably a Little Embarrassed. Simply say, "It means..." Then don't add, "You see?" Assume he does. Just move on with your remarks.
What to Do If You Make a Mistake While Speaking. Our vote? Admit the mistake. Say, "You know, I don't think that was the right word." Then quickly choose a less pretentious word and keep speaking. Don't belabor the mistake. Self-admonishments, such as "How could I have done that?" or "I am a jerk" will only underline your discomfort and put your mistake in neon lights. Expressing your awareness of the gaffe will cut off your listener's private litany and help the two of you get on with it.
If you mispronounce a word, try a bit of light humor. "Hmm...that didn't sound right. Is it...?" Bring your listener in. It will make her feel smart. It will make you appear self-aware. And it will leave you looking confident -- not afraid to elicit the help of others for fear that it will diminish you. Your listener doesn't have to know this is a big trick and you actually feel pathetic. Then, on the other hand, maybe you don't feel bad. Maybe you're thrilled to be learning new words; maybe you're determined to move forward even if you make a few mistakes along the way.
To Avoid the Pitfalls of an Expanding Vocabulary. First, read this book cover to cover. (This is a semiserious suggestion.) Or you can follow these surefire tips:
* It's important to understand you don't need to use a word others won't readily understand in order to sound intelligent. True intelligence comes across when smart thoughts are expressed with clarity, and for the most part, brevity. It's the old "less is more" philosophy.
* Believe that a well-used, simple word will be as effective as a properly used, fancy word, pronounced correctly to the right person.
* And whatever you do, when you are speaking, use only those words you are completely sure of.
BACK TO BIG TESTS: WHAT IF YOU DON'T KNOW A WORD?
Vocabulary is usually tested in the context of a sentence. That's some help right there. The trick is, you have to find and use the dues. You have to be a detective. Here's how it works in the following sample test sentence.
Criminals who show remorse are given lighter sentences than those who show no compunction.
Okay. So you have no idea what compunction means. But look at the sentence. Criminals who show remorse get a good thing. But those who show no compunction don't. So it stands to reason that remorse and compunction must mean pretty much the same thing. That's the due. If remorse indicates shame or guilt, then compunction probably does too. Therefore "no compunction" would have to mean no shame, no guilt.
Peter had often heard that his photographs were similar to those of a well-established photographer; and so he worried his new, innovative portfolio might also be considered:
Peter's past photographs reminded people of someone else's. Peter's worried this will be true of his new stuff, too. A good clue is innovative. He's thinking this will stand in the way of his being thought of as a, b, c, d, or e. That knocks out incompetent. No one said his work is bad. Typical doesn't make sense. Typical of what? Formless has nothing to do with it. So you're left with derivative or suggestive. This is where you might just have to guess. Or you could say to yourself "suggestive"? That would indicate his work suggests someone else's, but it doesn't have to mean that. It could suggest anything. The solar system for example. The only word left is derivative. Through the process of elimination, you've flexed your word power on a standardized test. (By the way, the dictionary definition of derivative is "to derive, or obtain from a parent source.")
WHAT'S WORD POWER?
We believe that words are learned both through straight definition and through context, and through all forms of "tricks" and practice. We believe that you need to be motivated both by your desire to know more about words, and the sense that your knowledge base is indeed growing.
You need to use (all or in any combination) your eyes, ears, voice, humor, sense of the absurd, reasoning skills, and even handwriting to learn the full meaning and application of a word. (Also how to pronounce it.)
Tips and Tricks for Making Vocabulary Stick
Here is a quick list of some of the ways you can make the words in this book your own. That ability to make new words "stick" is what we mean by "word power."We hope you'll try out all of these tricks and see which ones help you best. Then use them powerfully!
* Reading helps you figure out basically what a word means from its context. Remember, though, it's the subtleties that count when speaking or writing. Context does not convey the full scope of meaning, and in fact can be misleading. What if the word is being used sarcastically? Example:
"Well," lames eyed Marissa's dress with disapproval. "Isn't that just sublime."
* Mnemonics help as global hints to the meaning of a word, and are often easier to remember than the definition (or fact) itself. This is partly because they have entertainment value. Many students are taught to remember the difference between the word principle and principal by being told, "The principal is your pal." This of course strikes most kids as absurd, which helps them remember, and gets us to our next point.
* Absurd imagery (pictures) can help you remember meanings. Take the word flout: to disregard with disrespect. We imagine a strictly religious family Thanksgiving dinner where a floozy (FL) is being told to get out (OUT), for in that traditional family world, no one respects a floozy. Whenever your mind gives you a picture, you will likely remember the word. Your pictures and association will stay with you. This is why this book will not give you any of those kinds of associations. They wouldn't work. The point is for you to make up pictures from your own experience.
* Etymology is a solid way to figure out a word. The etymology of a word is its root. Take PED (foot) for instance. PEDal, PEDestrian, exPEDite. These words all have something to do with the foot. All these words have to do with getting somewhere.
* Writing, the act of physically putting the word down on paper, helps to solidify it in a person's mind. Writing the word helps our minds remember. Use flash cards. Use bright markers. Write down the word and its definition. Put it in a sentence. Read it over. Test yourself. Take out the cards that give you trouble. Keep writing and practicing to build your word power.
* Tongue twisters are childish games that can imprint the meanings of words into grown-up brains. Remember that old one, "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers"? You may not know the word peck, but when you say the tongue twister, it is obvious that peck is a quantity, a measurement. As you read the words in each lesson of this book, you can make up your own tongue twisters with the words, for they almost always use the same letter of the alphabet. For example, Lesson 12 has almost all M words:
Morose Mavis made herself into a martyr. "Better a mercenary maverick," she moaned.
This may not have the zing of Mother Goose, but it will get you through to the meanings.
HOW TO PUT YOUR WORD POWER INTO ACTION
Here's our plan. The 750 words we cover in this book (along with many others we'll correct, clarify, and analyze throughout) are divided into three sections:
Section 1 is called "Words You Really Ought to Know" (or "Are You Ready to Lunch with the Harvard Admissions Counselor?"). Twenty lessons and twenty sets of lesson quizzes will help you plug in to your first level of word power.
Section 2 is called "Harder Words You Ought to Know" (or "You May Be Ready to Have Coffee with Your Professor"). Another twenty lessons and twenty sets of lesson quizzes will amp up your word power to an even higher level of accomplishment.
Section 3 is called "Really Hard Words You Ought To Know" (or "You Are Ready to Dine with the President of Harvard"). Whoa! You're really supercharging your vocabulary when you cover the fifteen lessons and quiz sets in this final section.
In each Word Power lesson, we'll give you the straight definition and part of speech for each vocabulary word. Whenever we hit a word that is commonly found on SATs and GREs, it will be marked with a lightning bolt -- study these first if you're in a rush to ace the verbal part of your exam! We'll use the words in a few different forms, in sentences, so that you can get a sense for context. And as we've already warned you, after each lesson you will have a brief Plug In quiz.
Following all the word lessons, we'll give you a chapter that will provide more foundational information to further your word studies. This chapter, titled "Root Juice" is a discussion of etymology. Knowing the roots is an added plus, and they can get you guessing word meanings intelligently when you're faced with a written word you just don't know.
Sounds like a lot, right? But you can work at your own pace.
DON'T ZAP YOUR BRAIN
It's hard to learn vocabulary from a dictionary or thesaurus. Word Power is not a dictionary or thesaurus. We're talking real life here. We want to empower you with a vocabulary you can fully understand and use. We want you to ace your standardized test or have a great vocabulary for the workplace.
Dictionaries are great, but they're often hard to understand. For one thing, they try to tell you how to pronounce a word, but unless you know the meaning of a lot of symbols, you can get awfully confused. Second, they do reveal all the meanings of a word, but rarely in any sort of context.
Thesauruses have another problem. They can be quite misleading. Too many readers assume the words listed after the key word mean precisely what that key word means, which is utterly untrue. The words are only possible alternatives. The people who put the thesaurus together have no idea what you want an alternative for, so they cover their bases by giving you all sorts of possibilities. You're supposed to choose the one that best works for you. Here's an example:
exacerbate v. 1. aggravate, worsen, add insult to injury, intensify, heighten. 2. embitter, gall, ramble, acerbate, sour, poison. 3. exasperate, discompose, distress, ruffle, roil, pique, chafe, grate
Willie exacerbated the situation by lying when he was caught cheating.
Willie heightened the situation by lying when he was caught cheating.
Which works best? Not heightened. Heightened speaks to mounting intensity. That's not wrong, but it's not the golden fleece either. It doesn't quite mean "gets worse." Exacerbated does.
But how do you know what word works best for you? You read this book. Then when you look up a word in a thesaurus, you'll murmur as you run your eyes over the list, "Nope, not quite what I mean. Ah...yes, I forgot about that word. That fits."
A FINAL NOTE ON USING NEW VOCABULARY WORDS
You know that line, "It's better to look good than to feel good"? This is, of course, a pathetic approach to life. Well, similarly, it's not better to sound good when in truth you don't know what you're talking about! So be honest with yourself. Don't throw big words around unless you're sure of what they mean!
Sure, some people who know as much or less than you will be impressed, but so what? You'll know. And the more you know the unhappy truth, the more insecure you'll feel, while at the same time learning absolutely nothing except that you can fool some of the people some of the time.
So try to keep this in mind. When it comes to vocabulary of any level, what matters most is that you make sense, that you say what you mean. You don't have to mean what you say of course, but that's an entirely different issue.
What does word power all boil down to? Make sure, even as you stretch your mind and vocabulary, that you maintain healthy respect for little words. The simple words. The words you readily use and easily understand. When you are truly familiar with the less common words, begin to use them judiciously. Carefully. With thought. And discipline.
Communicating is an art. It's a power art. Words are the medium. Do not treat them with disrespect. Your ability to communicate will deepen and broaden. You will express yourself more clearly in the world.
Copyright © 2001 by Kaplan, Inc.