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Word Workout: Building a Muscular Vocabulary in 10 Easy Steps

Word Workout: Building a Muscular Vocabulary in 10 Easy Steps

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by Charles Harrington Elster

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Word Workout is a practical book for building vocabulary—a graduated program featuring thousands of words that begins with those known by most college graduates and ascends to words known only by the most educated, intelligent, and well-read adults. This workout is a comprehensive program, chock-full of information about synonyms, antonyms, and word


Word Workout is a practical book for building vocabulary—a graduated program featuring thousands of words that begins with those known by most college graduates and ascends to words known only by the most educated, intelligent, and well-read adults. This workout is a comprehensive program, chock-full of information about synonyms, antonyms, and word origins, and replete with advice on proper usage and pronunciation. There are also creative review quizzes at each step of the way to measure your progress and reinforce learning. Unlike other vocabulary books, Word Workout provides a complete learning experience with clear explanations and surefire methods to retain new knowledge. Far more than a cram session for a standardized test, this book is designed as a lifetime vocabulary builder, featuring words used by the top tier of literate Americans, laid out in ten accessible chapters designed for anyone who is looking for some serious verbal exercise.

From "avowal" to "proselytize," from "demagogue" to "mendicant," Charles Harrington Elster has carefully picked the words you need to know, and given you an easy, fast, and fail-safe way to learn and remember them.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
"A workout with words is nowhere near as taxing as twenty minutes on a Stairmaster," says language expert Elster (What in the Word?). In this engaging narrative, the author serves as an encouraging "fitness" trainer, putting readers through their paces as they learn ten increasingly challenging levels of 50 words each, with each level divided into five sets of ten words. Each term is explored in a contextual essay of several paragraphs, and a review test concludes each set. Other grammar/style tips are sprinkled throughout the text. VERDICT Fun mental flexing for those seeking alternatives to Sudoku and crossword puzzles.
From the Publisher

“Engaging narrative…fun mental flexing for those seeking alternatives to Sudoku and crossword puzzles.” —Library Journal

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Word Workout

Building a Muscular Vocabulary in 10 Easy Steps

By Charles Harrington Elster

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2014 Charles Harrington Elster
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-02089-5



Word 1: DEPRAVITY (di-PRAV-i-tee)

Wickedness, moral perversion, corrupt or evil character or behavior.

Synonyms of depravity include deviancy, degeneracy, baseness, vileness, iniquity (word 2 of Level 4), debauchery (di-BAWCH-uh-ree, see debauch, word 30 of Level 5), and turpitude (word 49 of Level 6). Antonyms include virtue, integrity, uprightness, rectitude (word 35 of Level 1), scrupulousness, impeccability, and probity.

Depravity began as the shorter word pravity, which came to English in the 16th century through Middle French pravité from the Latin pravitas, crookedness, irregularity, deformity. The prefix de-, which has several meanings, was added by the mid-17th century and in this instance means completely, thoroughly, to the bottom or core, as in denude (di-N[Y]OOD), to strip completely, make bare; despoil (di-SPOYL), to take all the spoils, and thus to rob, plunder, pillage; and deliquesce (DEL-i-KWES), to melt away completely, dissolve.

In modern usage depravity always applies to morals and, because of that intensifying prefix de-, suggests thorough corruption or wickedness: the sexual predator's depravity. The adjective is depraved, corrupt, wicked, perverted, as depraved fantasies, a depraved lifestyle, a depraved appetite for drugs.

Word 2: PRESUMPTUOUS (pri-ZUHMP-choo-us)

Overly forward, taking undue liberties, acting or speaking too boldly, venturing beyond the limits of proper behavior or good sense.

Synonyms of presumptuous include arrogant, impertinent (word 20 of Level 1), impudent, insolent (word 5 of Level 2), shameless, overweening (word 46 of Level 6), and brazen.

One of the meanings of the verb to presume is to take undue liberties, or, to take upon oneself without permission or authority. For example, you can presume to know what's good for someone else, presume you can do something better than someone else, or presume to speak when you ought to be silent.

From this sense of presume comes the adjective presumptuous, overly forward, unduly confident or bold. When you are presumptuous you go beyond what is considered appropriate or proper, or you take it upon yourself to do or say something without permission or authority. A presumptuous person takes undue liberties with others, such as bossing them around or making unwanted amorous advances. Presumptuous speech is overly bold or arrogant. Presumptuous logic is overly confident in its rightness and arrogantly ignores the flaws in its reasoning.

In its more common sense, presume means to suppose, believe, take for granted, infer—as when Sir Henry Morton Stanley, upon finding the explorer David Livingstone in Ujiji, Tanzania, in 1871, famously asked, "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" In this sense it is often interchangeable with assume. But sometimes a fine distinction can be drawn between these two words.

When you assume, you suppose something that is realistic or probable, that is likely to happen or be true: teachers assume that their students will do their homework; employees assume they will be paid. When you presume, you suppose more boldly and confidently, believing or asserting the likelihood or truth of something that may be doubtful or wrong: optimists presume things will always work out for the better; students often presume to know the answer to a teacher's question.

The distinction between the nouns assumption and presumption, however, is slightly different. An assumption can be anything supposed or taken for granted, often without any probable evidence: "Before Copernicus and Galileo, the common assumption was that the earth was flat." A presumption is anything supposed or believed that is based on probable, though not conclusive, evidence: "The $3.8 trillion budget released by the White House on Monday includes $150 billion in deficit reduction over 10 years on the presumption that a health care bill will be adopted" (The New York Times).

In law, the notion that a defendant is innocent until proved guilty is called "presumption of innocence," which Black's Law Dictionary defines as "the fundamental principle that a person may not be convicted of a crime unless the government proves guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, without any burden placed on the accused to prove innocence."

Word 3: GRANDIOSE (GRAN-dee-ohs, rhymes with handy dose)

Showy and grand in an exaggerated, artificial way; affected, inflated, pompous.

Synonyms of grandiose include pretentious, highflown, ostentatious (AH-sten-TAY-shus), bombastic (bahm-BAS-tik), grandiloquent (gran-DIL-uh-kwint), and turgid (TUR-jid).

Although grandiose has been used of things that are impressive without being objectionable—as when Ralph Waldo Emerson, in 1843, wrote, "This grandiose character pervades his wit and his imagination"—the word is usually used in a disparaging way of something that tries so hard to impress or appear grand that it seems showy and pompous. A person's way of dressing, behaving, or speaking can be described as grandiose if it is so affected or exaggerated as to border on the absurd.

Grandiose may also mean unnecessarily complicated or elaborate, extravagant, overblown. In this sense we often hear or read of grandiose plans, ideas, or dreams, and grandiose architecture, music, or terminology.

The noun is grandiosity (GRAN-dee-AH-si-tee).

Word 4: DISSEMINATE (di-SEM-i-nayt)

To spread widely, scatter as if sowing seed.

The verb to disseminate comes from the Latin disseminare, to sow, spread abroad, from dis-, apart, away, and semen, seminis, seed, that which is sown or planted, the direct source of the English semen (SEE-min), which dictionaries typically define as "a viscid, whitish fluid produced in the male reproductive organs and carrying spermatozoa." Viscid (VIS-id), by the way, means thick and sticky.

The Latin semen, seminis, seed, is also the source of the words seminary and seminal. A seminary may be a place where something originates and is nurtured and developed (a seminary of provocative ideas for tackling social problems), or a school where people study theology and are trained to become ministers, priests, or rabbis. The adjective seminal (word 39 of Level 5) literally means like a seed, and therefore so original and important as to influence later development or future events (a seminal scientific study that charted the course of all subsequent research).

Synonyms of disseminate include broadcast, disperse, and promulgate. Of these, to broadcast, to spread abroad, make widely known, is closest in meaning to disseminate. To disperse may mean to move or scatter in different directions, as the crowd dispersed; to send or drive off in different directions, as the police dispersed the crowd; or, like disseminate, to spread abroad or about, distribute, as to disperse heat or a disease dispersed throughout the city. To promulgate (pro-MUHL-gayt or PRAHM-ul-gayt) means to make known formally or officially, publish, proclaim, as to promulgate a new policy of amnesty, or to teach publicly, advocate openly, as to promulgate the doctrine of nonviolence.

Word 5: ECLECTIC (i-KLEK-tik)

Varied or diverse in an interesting way; selecting, or consisting of selections, from a variety of sources, especially the best of those sources. "Not confined to any one model or system," says The Century Dictionary, "but selecting and appropriating whatever is considered best in all."

Although the adjectives eclectic and diverse are close in meaning, they are not synonymous. Diverse means having variety, consisting of different kinds. You can have diverse opinions, a diverse society, or a diverse wardrobe. In careful usage, eclectic does not mean merely varied but rather selected thoughtfully, with the goal of achieving an interesting variety. Thus, although an eclectic collection of music may include many kinds of music, and in this sense be diverse, eclectic also implies that this variety was achieved by careful selection rather than by chance.

Unfortunately, eclectic is often used as a showy substitute for diverse by writers who are not sensitive to the subtle distinction between these words. For example, the phrase China's eclectic cuisine is poor usage because the Chinese invented their own diverse cuisine; they did not select it with care from other great cuisines of the world. And the phrase an eclectic mix of people milled in front of the building is also poor usage because the mix is random, not intentionally arranged. Only if people have been chosen to create an especially interesting mix can a group be called eclectic.

Haphazard means selected or assembled at random or by chance, without any thought for arrangement. Diverse and miscellaneous both mean of mixed character, composed of different kinds of things, and usually do not imply judgment or taste in selection. Eclectic should always imply judgment and taste in selection, especially choosing the best from a variety of sources. An eclectic approach to philosophy or religion selects from them those ideas that seem best, while an eclectic diner will go to various restaurants, sampling a bit here and a bit there, looking for the best fare to be had.

Word 6: SERVILE (SUR-vil, rhymes with chervil)

Like a slave, slavish, submissive, obedient, subservient, yielding.

Servile is the adjective. The noun is servility (sur-VIL-i-tee), submissive behavior, unquestioning obedience, or the condition of being a slave or servant.

Synonyms of servile include groveling, fawning, truckling, toadying, sycophantic (SIK-uh-FAN-tik), and obsequious (uhb-SEE-kwee-us). All these words suggest submissive behavior, but in slightly different ways.

To grovel (GRAH-vul or GRUH-vul), from Middle English and Old Norse words meaning facedown, prone, is to lie or crawl with one's face down. Because, in days of yore, this position was assumed to show humility and obedience before a noble person or one's superiors, grovel came to be used figuratively to mean to humble oneself out of loyalty, remorse, or fear.

To fawn, which dates back to 1225, originally applied to animals, especially dogs, and meant to show delight, affection, or a desire for attention in the manner of a dog—in other words, to wag the tail, whine, crouch, roll submissively, and so on. By the early 14th century fawn had come to be used figuratively of submissive behavior intended to gain notice or favor, and today this word applies to anyone who curries favor by apple-polishing or kissing up: the pop star's fawning admirers; she fawned on her boss in hopes of a promotion.

What we now call a trundle bed, a kind of low bed that moves on casters and can slide under a larger bed when not in use, was originally called a truckle bed. The verb to truckle at first meant to sleep in a truckle bed, but because the person who slept in the truckle bed was invariably the servant or pupil of the master, who slept in the more comfortable high bed, truckle soon came to mean to act like a servant or a fawning pupil, to submit or yield meekly. You can truckle to, as in this 1789 quotation from Samuel Parr's Tracts Warburton: "He was ... too proud to truckle to a Superior." Or you can truckle for, as in this quotation from 1885: "Doubtful people of all sorts and conditions begging and truckling for your notice."

In his Dictionary of Word Origins, Joseph T. Shipley tells how "medieval traveling medicine-men" used to have an assistant who would swallow a live toad, or seem to, "so that the master could display his healing powers." The assistant came to be called a toadeater, which was eventually shortened to toady and used of any flattering follower, a person who truckles to the rich or powerful. To toady is to be like a toady, to be a yes-man or apple polisher.

A sycophant (SIK-uh-funt, with -phant as in elephant) is an especially self-serving kind of toady. The word goes back to ancient Greek and in English originally meant an informer or malicious accuser. Today the word refers to those who attempt to gain influence or advancement through fawning flattery and slavish subservience. And while the toady is merely a faithful follower or servant, underneath his guise of servility the sycophant is usually a scheming backstabber.

The adjective obsequious comes from the Latin obsequi, to comply with, yield to, obey. The obsequious person follows the wishes or bows to the will of another, and is always ready and willing to serve, please, or obey. "I see you are obsequious in your love," wrote Shakespeare in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Our keyword, servile, comes from the Latin adjective servilis, slavish, of a slave, from servire, to be a servant or slave. Because of this derivation, servile has always been used of those who accept an inferior position and whatever menial duties and undignified concessions come with it. A servile person is a bootlicker, a kowtower, one who behaves in the bowing, cringing manner of a servant or slave.

Antonyms of servile include unruly, defiant, intractable (in-TRAK-tuh-bul), refractory (ri-FRAK-tur-ee), recalcitrant (ri-KAL-si-trant), and intransigent (in-TRAN-si-jent).

Word 7: VORACIOUS (vor-AY-shus)

Extremely hungry, having a large appetite or cravings that are difficult to satisfy.

Voracious may be used either literally, of great physical hunger, or figuratively, either of a great appetite for intellectual or emotional nourishment or of an excessive eagerness or greed for something. A voracious reader is an extremely avid reader; a voracious lover is one whose appetite for erotic pleasure cannot be satisfied; a voracious look is a hungry, desirous, and perhaps predatory look.

Synonyms of voracious in its literal sense include famished and gluttonous. Synonyms of voracious in both its literal and figurative senses include insatiable (in-SAY-shuh-bul or in-SAY-shee-uh-bul), ravenous, rapacious (word 10 of Level 2), and edacious (ee-DAY-shus).

Word 8: CONVOLUTED (KAHN-vuh-LOO-tid)

Intricate, complicated, very involved, hard to unravel.

Convoluted comes from the Latin convolutus, the past participle of the verb convolvere, to roll together, roll round, intertwine, the source also of the unusual verb to convolve, to roll up, coil, twist, and the more familiar noun convolution, a winding, coil, twist or fold, as of something rolled upon itself: "It hath many convolutions, as worms lying together have," says the earliest citation for this word, from 1545, in the Oxford English Dictionary (hereafter the OED).

The morning glory is a common plant known for its ability to support itself by twining around anything its vigorous tendrils can grasp. Like the morning glory, which twists and coils itself around things, that which is convoluted is so intricate and complex, so folded in upon itself, that it is difficult and sometimes impossible to unravel. A long, complex argument—or even a complicated sentence—is often described as convoluted. Mathematical equations and philosophical reasoning can be convoluted, and the regulations of the federal tax code are notoriously convoluted. The human body also has its well-known convolutions: the brain is a convoluted mass of gray and white matter, and if you were to unravel the convolutions of the small intestine it would stretch to more than twenty feet.


Excerpted from Word Workout by Charles Harrington Elster. Copyright © 2014 Charles Harrington Elster. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Charles Harrington Elster is a nationally recognized authority on the English language and the author of The Accidents of Style, Verbal Advantage, and many other books. He has written for The New York Times Magazine, the Boston Globe, and The Wall Street Journal, and been a guest commentator on hundreds of radio shows. He lives in San Diego, California.

Charles Harrington Elster is a nationally recognized authority on language. He is the orthoepist for Wordnik.com and the author of Verbal Advantage and many other books. His articles have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Boston Globe, and The Wall Street Journal. He lives in San Diego, California.

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Word Workout: Building a Muscular Vocabulary in 10 Easy Steps 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you love words this book is a treat.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Another great book from Elster. It has the same format as Verbal Advantage.