building vocab one strip of paper at a time

Many people believe that we think by using language–words. Not me. Indeed, I think it’s easy to show that this idea is not true. In my view, language is a communication technology. But it’s still extremely important, and all the more so if you happen to be, as I am, a writer.

I work continually to build my command of English. One of my methods of doing that is to write down new words as I encounter them in my reading. My bookmarks are blank slips of paper on which I write each new word as I come across it, along with its definition from Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. I have a good supply of these bookmarks, and they get shuffled around as I finish reading one book and start another, so by the time I complete a bookmark it is usually filled with words from a number of different books read over the course of a few years.

Have these words ever had to bunk together like this before?

Okay, here goes:

To give you an idea, I thought I would share the contents of a recently completed bookmark. Most of the words were not new to me in the sense of never having seen them before. My main criterion for adding a word is that it not be in my active vocabulary. I ask myself, “Could I use this word in my own writing right now?” If I lack confidence about that, then I add the word and its definition. When a word has multiple senses, I usually just write down the sense in which it is being used in the book where I found it.

colophon 1: inscription placed at the end of a book or manuscript usually with facts relative to its production

venerate 1: to regard with reverential respect or with admiring deference

advert 1: to turn the mind or attention–used with to

nascent coming or having recently come into existence

trepidation 1: archaic: a tremulous motion: tremor 2: timorous uncertain agitation: apprehension

barrow male hog castrated before sexual maturity

chamberlain 2a: a chief officer in the household of a king or nobleman

ipecac 2: emetic and expectorant drug that contains emetine and is prepared from ipecac especially as a syrup for use in treating accidental poisoning

emetine [yes, sometimes I have to look up words in the definitions too] amorphous alkaloid extracted from ipecac root and used as an emetic and expectorant

agraffe hook-and-loop fastening, especially: an ornamental clasp used on armor or costumes

awn one of the slender bristles that terminate the glumes of the spikelet in some cereal and other grasses

byssus 1: fine probably linen cloth of ancient times

galliot 1: small swift galley formerly used in the Mediterranean

breastwork temporary fortification

baldachin 1: cloth canopy fixed or carried over an important person or a sacred object

rodomontade 2: vain boasting or bluster: rant

shirtwaist woman’s tailored garment (as a blouse or dress) with details copied from men’s shirts

anodyne 1: something that soothes, calms, or comforts; 2: a drug that allays pain

benison blessing, benediction

spavined 2: old and decrepit; over-the-hill

organdy very fine transparent muslin with a stiff finish

linguiça form of smoke-cured pork sausage seasoned with garlic and paprika in Portuguese-speaking countries

selectman one of a board of officials elected in towns of all New England states except Rhode Island to serve as the chief administrative authority of the town

reredos a usually ornamental wood or stone screen or partition wall behind an altar

morris chair easy chair with adjustable back and removable cushions

larrup 2 dialect: to move indolently or clumsily

Parsons table usually rectangular table having straight legs that are flush with the edge of the top

span pair of animals (as mules) usually matched in appearance and action and driven together

That’s my bookmark: both sides. The final step of the process is that I review my bookmark by reading all the entries aloud to myself before recycling it. Formerly I did this in privacy and solitude, but lately I have taken to recording videos of this heart-stopping action and posting them to my Facebook author page. If you think you can handle the excitement, you can watch me read the above list, and see how I grapple with pronunciation.

Going through this process means that often I remember exactly where I learned certain words. If you would like to build your own vocabulary, I warmly recommend this method as one way of doing so.


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