Friday, March 26, 2010

Word To Your Mother

My mom, a special ed teacher, rode my academic ass for the better part of my life. While the rest of you did your homework, she layered additional learning tasks. Every week I was required to take three reading comprehension tests. No, I’m not kidding. When I passed, I got a point and when I earned enough points, she would take me over to the toy store to pick out a prize.

Like other parents, my mother also pushed me to read, regularly taking me to the local library and bookstore. This backfired when, for my twelfth birthday, she gave me a dictionary.

“I didn’t ask for this,” I said with a huff.

“No, you didn’t. But you should have.”

I peeled back the cover.

“I already wrote your name in it so, no, you can’t return it,” my mom said as she collected the discarded wrapping paper.

To show my dissatisfaction, I refused to use it.

“What does discursive mean?” I asked.

“Go look it up,” my mom instructed as she rinsed some potatoes.


To this day, the spine and pages of that dictionary remain pristine. You see, I hated learning vocabulary. Remembering origins and roots made my brain hurt. And even when I finally learned what a word meant, I rarely understood how to use it in a sentence. Or at least in a sentence more complex than ‘this is [insert adjective here]’.

A few years ago, as my writing habit became more of a passion, I vowed to grow my vocabulary. I signed up for Word of the Day. I even started a blog where I posted a word’s definition, tried using it in three different sentences, and then invited my readers to participate. Things were going well until I visited my then boyfriend in Alaska. Standing alongside a stream, glacier melt running through the wilderness, I turned to this one-time NASA astronaut candidate and tried to show off.

“The turgid waters rush over the slippery rocks and down toward the forest,” I said with a proud smile.

“Turbid,” he said with a chuckle.


Not having a large vocabulary is like trying to paint only with primary colors. After a while, you get pretty tired of blue. But I haven’t given up yet. One trick I recently learned was to print out what I’ve written and then go through and circle any word I think can be improved. Then I scour the thesaurus and dictionary for ideas. It’s actually done wonders for my writing. Especially my novel. I mean, in the span of 40,000 words, variety is crucial.

Even with this trick under my belt, I still know I can do more. But what? No, I am serious. How do you guys build your vocabulary? And if any of you suggest vocab cards, I will cut you.


  1. This is probably an obvious suggestion, but I used to read...a lot. I'd often have 3-4 books going at a time. And, as a kid, I'd read higher than my actual reading level and look up everything I didn't know. It was easier to remember the what the word meant because it was used in the context of a story (so the imagery helped).

    Unfortunately for you, this would mean finally cracking the spine on that dictionary.

  2. I tend to notice vocabulary when I'm reading, too, and after a while I figure out how it's used and it creeps into my own vocabulary. A problem with this, though, is that I can often use and spell the words, but can't pronounce them correctly. :)

    Another piece of advice that I picked up from Rebecca H. at SC: Don't use a thesaurus to meet new friends -- use it to reconnect with old ones.

  3. WOW!!!! What a great story, what a great post!

    You're right - limited vocabulary is akin to painting with only the primary colours!

    And if you get a kick out of words and language, check out "The Meaning of Everything" - a book about the making of the first OED. Neat story...

    Cheers, Jill

  4. like the post, but i've got to say i've never read anything of yours and said "gee, she sure used the word ______ a lot in that piece. what a dumbass." while i agree with variety being the spice of life, my comment would be "moderation in everything". don't go too far in the other direction trying to show off new words or anything. you risk 2 things happening; using a word the wrong way and alienating people. although i know what both turgid and turbid mean, i'd still mentally kick someone in the shins for using either one of them.