Expanding Vocabulary: Words I Learned From Books and Why It Matters

I was once called out for using overcomplicated words in an email conversation with a friend. He thought I was pretentious (I am) and that functionality is the extent to which people should be concerned with learning a language. If there’s a simple word or phrase for it, why opt for the sesquipedalian and obfuscate the matter for your interlocutor?

Well, after that egregious question, I wouldn’t blame you for agreeing with him.

But “functionality” varies drastically depending upon what “function” you need it for—expressing complex ideas and modes of thought require a larger vocabulary. There is also such a thing as a specialized vocabulary, where certain fields have certain words specific to their functions. It’s always beneficial to learn about things outside our usual sphere of knowledge. But for me it comes down to: I don’t want to say the same things the same way all the time. You might consider those criteria the “functionality” of language for a writer.

 I like words. I like the English language, this Frankenstein of all tongues. It’s fun for me to learn new words and integrate them into my vocabulary. I don’t do it to sound smart (maybe a little—I can use all the advantages I can get), or superior, or to use as a platform for deriding others: I just enjoy it. And I like sharing it with others. While my sister was in college I had a 365-day calendar with a word for each day and I used to email the good ones to her, learning a lot myself. But most of the new words I find are in books. And some of them, I can remember exactly where I learned them from.

1. loquacious: talkative; first encountered in The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens. Dickens uses some great adjectives to describe even his throwaway characters. One fellow passenger on a train ride was simply christened “the loquacious gentleman” and every time that word is used, I always think of Dickens and this particular train-companion.

2. masochism: deriving pleasure (often sexual) from pain; first encountered in Twilight by Stephanie Meyer. There were several surprising instances of words being used that were rather out of the norm and I learned something new. This is the one I remember because it also appears in the movie.

3. ubiquitous: seeming to be everywhere at once; first encountered in Les Misérables by Victor Hugo. Ah, Gavroche, thou ragged, yet indomitable spirit of the revolution! Granted, this is a translation, but sometimes the best English words can be found in translations of other languages where the translator is pressed to find functional equivalents to foreign words.

4. denizens: an inhabitant; first encountered in Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs.  With the amount of times this word was used to describe the animals (“denizens of the jungle”), you bet I learned what it meant! Somebody should have given Burroughs a thesaurus.

5. marplot: one who frustrates (or “mars”) a plot; first encountered in David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. More Dickens—so many good words, so many good descriptions. “Galvanic” is another one I learned from this book. Classic.

6. losel: worthless person; first encountered in Ulysses by James Joyce. There is an abundance of words I learned from this obscenely long book, many of them liturgical, and a fair percentage of them made up by the author. I guess he was going for the Shakespeare method—if the word you want doesn’t exist, invent one.

7. perspicacity: quick, clear understanding; first encountered in The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. I learned a lot from this book, much more than I expected to. And it contains one of my favourite maxims: “The air of ideas is the only air worth breathing.”

8. ameliorate: to make better, improve; first encountered in Frankenstein by Mary Shelly. There isn’t much to ameliorate the disastrous aftermath of playing God. Except maybe a wealth of lessons learned.

9. recalcitrant: stubbornly refusing to comply, obstinate: first encountered in Code of Honor by Sandy Dengler. This book has the dubious honour of being used by me as an example of certain writing criticisms I have. However, I also learned a word from it, so it was not an experience wasted.

10. anachronism: error with respect to the time of some event, custom, costume, or other occurrence or procedure; first encountered in (_) by Thomas Hardy. I learned this either from Far From the Madding Crowd or Tess of the D’Urbervilles. I guess me saying where I learned this word is anachronistic. Haha. I read both books in close succession and learned about a billion new words between them. It got to be a bit of a chore pausing to write down or look up every unfamiliar word I encountered. It makes me think of a phrase I recently read about one of Hardy’s works: “hard to read, makes one ill, try it.”

Words, the stuff that stories are made of. What better way than reading to be exposed to new ones? Of course there’s a difference between a sight vocabulary and a working vocabulary—just because I’ve seen a word written in a book doesn’t mean I’ve ever heard it used or dared slide it into speech myself. (Fun fact: I first heard the word “anachronism” said out loud in the sci-fi show Andromeda. Who said TV isn’t educational?)

Transitioning words from “sight” to “working” can be daunting, as the well-known “epitome” and “hyperbole” can attest. (We can blame the Latin ancestors of the English language for these travesties of emphasis—who stole it from the Greeks, as they did most things.) For a long time, I had a pretty static sight vocabulary. When I was in my mid-teens I started reading more widely in classics, and I encountered a whole new horizon of words—I think Walter Scott started it. I started looking things up in the dictionary for definitions, and then I would sound out the pronunciation while I was at it.

It really is like learning a new language, except instead of starting from scratch, you’re just continuing learning how to understand others and to express yourself in a variety of ways on multiple levels—and like all language learning, it takes practice. It was university before I started peppering some of the words I was more confident about into my speech when I thought of them. You can only imagine the stupid thrill I got when I first slipped “vociferous” seamlessly into a sentence. Then I said “placate” out loud for the first time in a job interview before I could stop myself, second guessing my pronunciation the whole time. Though I didn’t get the job, it wasn’t due to mispronunciation: I checked afterward.

We’re all language learners. Even if you’re not taking French, Farsi, or Flemish, you’re learning a language—your own. Long after “native” speakers reach fluency, even proficiency, in their own tongue, there’s still a wealth of language yet to explore. Vocabulary is an almost limitless well that plunges down through a language’s history and disgorges treasures of words to those who wish to plumb its deeps.

2 thoughts on “Expanding Vocabulary: Words I Learned From Books and Why It Matters”

  1. ‘Now, honey rhymes with bunny, and bunny rhymes with…’ Narrator
    ‘Rabbit! Yeah, and I like Rabbit, because he uses short, easy words like, “How about lunch?”, and “Help yourself, Pooh.”‘ Winnie the Pooh

    Liked by 1 person

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