Extend your vocabulary and appreciate words

I love language. I love linguistics. I genuinely get a kick out of Etymology (the study of the origins of words and how meaning has changed over time), Morphology (the study of the forms of words, prefixes etc) and Semantics (the study of the meanings of words and phrases).

A high school teacher told my parents I had an extensive vocabulary; a result attributed to a voracious reading habit.  In Plain English – I know a lot of words because I read a lot. Easy to argue the last sentence was easier to comprehend than its predecessor – but was it as satisfying to read?

I’m all for Plain English used in reading material where I have to make a decision, or provide requested information. But when I’m seeking insight, inspiration or influence (that’s Alliteration!), I’m intellectually delighted to be stimulated by well chosen novel words.

I want to promote discovering and using non-Plain English words to
a) appreciate the great invention of the alphabet which gives us the ability to store knowledge in non-verbal form, and
b) exercise your mental muscle – that great engine of knowledge creation and storage.

In English, from a mere 26 characters, humanity has formed hundreds of thousands of words. The Oxford English Dictionary is a collection of more than 600,000 words. What creativity!  What possibility for expression!

One website has collated the 500 most commonly used English words http://www.world-english.org/english500.htm. The small subset indicates we can write and share knowledge with less than 1% of the entire collection.

To the matter of exercising your mental muscle, let’s follow the inspiration of my high school English teacher who regularly stimulated interest in new and unusual words. I still recall two words she introduced:
Cacophony – harsh, inharmonious collection of sound
Onomatopoeia – words that imitate the sounds associated with the actions or objects they refer to

In one book I recently read, I came across eight words to extend my vocabulary (list below).

Three I have never heard of before, and had to look up in the dictionary:
Purblind – lacking in vision, insight or understanding
Pentimento – a visible trace of earlier painting beneath the paint on a canvas
Sacristan – a person in charge of the sacristy and ceremonial equipment

Two I had come across and had some sense of their meaning but not enough to explain to someone else:
Verisimilitude – The quality of appearing to be true or real
Eschew -To avoid, to shun

Three I could explain to others  and intend to use more creatively in everyday conversation:
Ominous – sense that something bad or unpleasant is about to happen
Loquacious – very talkative
Rancour – feeling of deep and bitter anger or ill-will

Two suggestions for you:
1. Sign up for Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of Day (http://www.oed.com/ ) to begin extending your vocabulary.
2. Find a buddy to share and practice your new words with. Start a competition for the most interesting finds!


Helen Palmer is Principal Consultant at RHX Group. She thinks critically about knowledge work, and how to ensure knowledge isn’t wasted. She revels in tackling the big processes of change and learning so that ideas become impact. With her colleagues at RHX Group, Helen helps teams make better use of their people, knowledge and information.



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