A good vocabulary is, for lack of a better word, good to have. I’d like to think I have a decent vocabulary, but I’m often unable to find the word I’m looking for. Sure, I’ve seen lots of words – I’ve probably even looked up their definitions – but I hardly ever remember them. So, starting now, I’m going to gradually incorporate more words into my daily usage.
Let’s begin with an instructional video:
Vocabulary is timeless! For more about the video, see the Internet Archive.
Step 1: Find New Words
Read, read, read! Like the video suggests, search consciously for new words and keep a list of them. (See my list.) Now, here are some links they would’ve loved to bookmark in 1948:
I learn new words every time I write, because I’m always alt-tabbing between my document and a thesaurus.
- Thesaurus.com - my old stand-by.
- Visual Thesaurus - presents an interactive web of words. I had fun with the free trial!
- Roget’s Thesauri - these have a more bookish feel to them.
- Learn a New Word - definitions, origins, and example sentences for a few hundred words.
- The Maven’s Word of the Day Archive - interesting information about many words, including definitions, origins, and notes on usage.
- A Year’s Worth of Words: A Popup Lexicon - 366 words, definitions and example sentences.
- Hutchinson Dictionary of Difficult Words - almost 14,000 words, definitions only.
- Luciferous Logolepsy - over 9,000 obscure words, definitions only.
- International House of Logorrhea - over 15,000 words, definitions only.
- 5,000 Free SAT Words - definitions only.
- GRE Vocabulary Builder - over 1,400 words viewable as flash cards or lists, definitions only.
- 100 Words Every High School Graduate Should Know - just the words, no definitions.
- My Favorite Word - a list of people's favorite words (be sure to submit yours!).
Word of the Day
Note: if you want even more word lists, many of these sites have word-of-the-day archives.
- A.Word.A.Day - RSS, email
- Vocab Vitamins - RSS, email
- OneLook Word of the Day - RSS
- Bloomsbury Word of the Day - email
- NY Times Word of the Day - neither RSS nor email
Step 2: Learn New Words
I hate real-life dictionaries – probably because I don’t know the alphabet as well as I should. Luckily for me, the internet provides alternatives for the alphabetically challenged.
Meaning, Spelling, and Pronunciation
While you’re reading a challenging article online, paste the URL into VoyCabulary to transform every word on the page into a link to the word’s definition.
OneLook Dictionary Search indexes over 900 dictionaries on every subject imaginable – it even has a “reverse dictionary”, letting you find a word by searching for its definition. Now, if you’re looking to hear a word’s pronunciation, look it up on Merriam-Webster or TheFreeDictionary.com.
For spelling tips, lists, and quizzes, see my Improve Your Spelling post.
- Just Vocabulary - teaches 2 words a day (made for ESL learners).
- Princeton Review Vocab Minute - uses a song to "teach around four words in 60 seconds."
- GoodWord from alphaDictionary.com - covers one word in each podcast, reading everything from the Daily Good Word.
- Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Day Podcast - simply reads everything from Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Day.
- Very Vocabulary - teaches several words and includes some personal commentary.
- Vocabulary Quizzes and Trivia - 390 vocabulary-related quizzes of all difficulties.
- Building A Better Vocabulary: Quizzes - matching, fill-in the blank, and more.
- NY Times Test Prep Question of the Day - one multiple-choice question each day.
- Sheppard Software Vocabulary Games - multiple-choice context quizzes and flashcards.
Usage, Connotations, and Etymology
If you want to develop a superior command of the language, you’ll need to understand each word’s finer nuances, not just its definition.
Celebrity English is a fun way to get started. I don’t usually think of Hollywood when I think of improving my vocabulary, but this blog uses celebrity news to teach new words. Now, if you want to find more usage examples for a specific word, look it up on Google News or even Google Blog Search; just browse through the search results (without even clicking any links) and you’ll get a better feel for how and when to use the word.
For links about word origins and history (including etymology podcasts, web columns, and more), see English Etymology Resources. You can also learn about the historical and cultural significance of some words by looking them up on an encyclopedia like Wikipedia. For example, I never knew that defenestration, one of my favorite words, “has become popular as a term for switching from MS Windows to Linux or another operating system.”
Alright, you now know the meaning of every word in the English language. Now you just need to remember everything. For best results, use a combination of the following methods:
- Mnemonics. Use acronyms, images, songs, and other memory tricks to memorize a word’s meaning and spelling. To remember the meaning of "mnemonics", notice that the word starts with M (as in "memory") and rhymes with "tricks". For spelling, just remember that Mnemonics Now Erase Man's Oldest Nemesis, Insufficient Cerebral Storage.
- Straight memorization. Hey, it works for some people! Simply review your word lists, flash cards, podcasts, and quizzes over and over again.
- Conversation. Use a new word every day. If you don’t want to sound pretentious around your friends, join a chatroom as Anonymous and practice there.
- Read. The more you come across your new words, the better you’ll remember them.
- Write. Start a scholarly blog. Get into creative writing. Anything will work, as long as you make the effort to use your new vocabulary.
- Word games. Play lots of crossword puzzles and Scrabble (if you love Scrabble, be sure to see the NSA Word of the Day). My personal favorites are the multiplayer Yahoo Word Games.
- Sticky notes. Don’t like your wallpaper? Plaster your house with sticky notes, each with a new word. Make them pretty or place them strategically -- stick "defenestration" on the window, for example.