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Building a Better Vocabulary the Lazy Man's Way
See also: Word Families in Sentence Context | Engaging Language Kits

by Don McCabe

Before anyone can successfully embark upon a program to improve his/her vocabulary, s/he must be completely convinced that it will be worthwhile. After, all, why spend the time and the effort necessary to learn words if the new words will not help in any way?

Secondly, a person must be completely convinced that s/he CAN learn those "big" words like my favorite graffito: "ESCHEW OBFUSCATION."

Although it is important to know that increasing one's vocabulary is beneficial and possible, it is far more important to learn to LOVE WORDS. It's important to learn that WORDS can be FUN, to learn to feel the power, the joy, and the humor in words that can increase the joys of living. If a person feels this way about words, s/he will enjoy learning words. It will be a pleasure.

And it won't matter very much what method the person uses. They will all work for a person who loves words. No method of learning new words has much chance for success if the person hates "big" words.
Some people have developed rather extensive vocabularies very successfully and easily by buying and using many, many cheap-well, comparatively cheap-vocabulary building books. Others have managed to accomplish the same thing by keeping little notebooks into which they jot down every new word that they encounter. Still others have acquired a vast word horde by simply reading and making a game out of trying to puzzle out the meanings of words either before they look them up or even without looking them up in a dictionary.

The most important element in building a vocabulary is the desire. When teachers, newscasters, or other adults use some silly academic euphemism, sesquipedalianism, or polysyllabic bit of arcane jargon, a typical response is: "He's just showing off his vocabulary." Rather than admit our ignorance and our need to learn, we often accuse the other person or writer of knowing too much. Now isn't that silly?

Yet, that is the way I was at one time. When I graduated from high school, I thought I knew everything-at least everything worth knowing. So when I encountered words that I just knew I had never seen before and wouldn't ever see again, I actually thought the writers were showing off. Now, I may still prefer simple straight forward writing to the academic, but I have learned that at eighteen I didn't know everything that was worth knowing. Once again, I am learning and enjoying learning.

Although it seems to be natural to accuse others of showing off when we don't understand them because it protects us from feeling inferior, it isn't right. We shouldn't feel insulted by the usage of a word we don't know. Instead, we should feel challenged.

And isn't that the way we react when we encounter a new slang word that pops up out of nowhere but we hear it everywhere. We actually signal our computer brain to figure out what the word means and how to use it. We are just "jiving" ourselves if we think we can learn the meaning of "jive" by looking it up in an ordinary dictionary.

This desire-this signaling of the computer brain to learn a word-can be easily accomplished if we read with a pencil. We should underline every word we don't understand. After the fourth or fifth time that we have underlined the same word, one of two things is liable to happen. First, we're quite liable to know the word now because our computer-brain solved the problem for us. Second, we're quite liable to ask somebody what the word means now because we are really sort of mad at ourselves for not figuring out what the word means. Or, heavens to Betsy, we might even use the dictionary. Personally, I eschew dictionaries, because I find their definitions to be more obfuscating than helpful. But, I have been known to be so mad that I have opened mine, and learned because I wanted to learn. And, by the way, remember good writers eschew obfuscation.

If a politician says he eschews obfuscation, you know he's using those big words so that nobody will understand exactly where he stands.

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