Words have the potential to be powerful—they can end relationships, profess love, and even save lives. Finding the right words for the task can be tricky, especially when we want people to respect us. Let me say this: I don’t think we should respect the person who says i luv u instead of I love you any less. There’s a tendency to be elitist when it comes to vocabulary, as if it’s the indication of a person’s intelligence. (It isn’t.) To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with using slang and “simple” words in conversation or in writing. In fact, simpler words often create clearer meaning.
When we deviate and try to pepper our speech with synonyms and euphemisms, we create a vague sort of doublespeak. This, for instance, is the intention in many political and marketing campaigns. Writer, teacher, and editor William Zinsser points out a doozy of an example in his book, On Writing Well. He quotes Caspar Weinberger, a U.S. Defence Secretary in 1984, during a Polish crisis, “There’s continuing ground for serious concern and the situation remains serious. The longer it remains serious, the more ground there is for serious concern.”
What the hell does that mean? One thing’s for sure: it sounds serious. This example illustrates how improving one’s vocabulary isn’t just about embarking on a search for the flashiest words, but rather, it’s about collecting words and knowing when to deploy them. Here’s a few tips on how to do that.
1. Read More
My sister is allergic to books. Not really, but she’s only ever finished one book in her life. (She would hurt me if I divulged which one.) However, she still has a good vocabulary. (As a bodybuilder, she knows a lot of words in the realm of nutrition and “gains” that I haven’t picked up on.) Although her tough image might suffer from me saying so, I believe she does quite a bit of reading. Any one of us with wifi and access to articles online probably reads more than we realize. The trick, however, is to vary our sources of consumption. If we’re exposed to the same clickbait articles using the same buzzwords, chances are we’re not going to learn much about language. And that’s fine, that doesn’t have to be our priority. But if we want to improve our vocabulary, we have to extend beyond what’s trending. Reading a variety of different blogs on a variety of different subjects is a great way to begin. Why not learn about new medical advances or scientific research? However, (and I may be biased), I believe one of the best ways to improve our vocabulary is through reading poetry. Here we can see words working in unpredictable ways. A good poet will steer readers away from clichés and predictable phrases. Go check out some poetry, I promise I won’t judge… even if you are a bodybuilder.
My diverse sources are these adorable books.
2. Keep a List of Words you Love
Since the best way to learn anything is through practice, seeing new words repeatedly is a good way to assimilate them in that brain matter. We can do this by creating a list of words that we like or that we want to learn. Author David Foster Wallace was known for his eccentric vocabulary and his long, winding sentences, (he wrote Infinite Jest, which holds a massive 1080 pages). Wallace kept a list of words he loved, including nidifugous, ordurous, and apophasis. (My own list of words is a little less ambitious.) By curating these words, the list becomes a sort of museum we can visit and over time we can glean words for use in conversation and in writing. If nothing else, the words we choose may end up telling us something about ourselves.
David Foster Wallace’s behemoth beside a live Canadian kangaroo for scale.
3. Explore Another Language
This seems counterintuitive. Why should we check out another language when we’re trying to master this one? Well, if the words we’re trying to learn are in English, then there are a lot of languages that can offer us some insight. Any latin-derived language such as Spanish, French, and Italian will provide us with interesting links to those latinate words such as animal, malevolence, and immortal. Looking into greek roots can also provide us with knowledge. The greek suffixes and prefixes will give us clues when we run into unknown words. For instance, the word autograph contains the suffix auto-, meaning self, and the prefix -graph, meaning written. We can ascertain the meaning of the word this way.
We can really geek out with words in this way. (There’s no shame about it). Every word has a story, after all. This is the etymology, and knowing the story of the word can help knowing when to use it. I like the word garbage for instance, which comes from the older word garbagye, referring to organ meats. In Cupboard Love, Mark Morton says, “it was not uncommon for a housewife to serve her family a supper of garbage, a meal they would devour with relish.”
He goes on to say, “one of the officers in the British Royal Kitchen—specifically the one in charge of preparing the chicken carcasses—was honoured with the title of Seargent Garbager.”
What an honour indeed.
“Sergeant Garbager reporting for duty, Sir.”
4. Use Words Correctly
Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who decides to say pontificate or lecherous every five minutes? Sometimes our enthusiasm for picking up new words can push us to use those words far more often than required, and within inappropriate contexts. We see this often in mainstream media. For instance, many news outlets and politicians used the word “de-escalate” when referring to the crisis in Ukraine in 2014. “We must de-escalate the circumstances in Ukraine.” But it has become such a buzzword that it lacks meaning.
We face another issue particularly if we are in a context in which we’re oppressed (by this I mean people of colour, women, people of size, people with disabilities, etc., depending on the circumstances). We might temper our words with “I think” and “it seems”, or “it looks as though” in order to distance ourselves from having an authoritative voice which could offend the person in power. (It’s not exactly easy to roll up to your boss and say “What the hell do you even mean when you say ‘team building’?”) In fact, journalist Malcolm Gladwell finds evidence of this issue in his book, Outliers, in which he offers an explanation on why a Korean airline had more planes crash than almost any other airline in the 1990s. (They have a good record now, so no worries.) The reason, he postulated, was because culturally, Korean co-pilots had to show respect to the senior pilot. So instead of saying “hey asshole, we’re gonna crash right into that mountain if you don’t circle back now,” they would temper their statements by saying something like, “wow, the weather isn’t very good…” The airline in question had to train their co-pilots to speak assertively.
We must do the same. Once we find the right words, we have to use them with confidence. Words, after all, only have the potential to be powerful. We have to wield them.
Be bold and branch out.
Hopefully you feel confident to find new words and chew them up. And to my sister, if you’ve read this far, good job: you’ve made some mad literary gains.