Author’s Note: This article was previously published at Suite101.com in 2010 (page no longer available), and is also in my book The Poet’s Workshop – and Beyond! I’ve edited a few things here, and will be adding additional resources as I discover them. If you have a favorite etymological or vocabulary development blog or newsletter, I’d love to hear about it!
There are a variety of methods for expanding vocabulary, from reading the dictionary and thesaurus to playing scrabble and doing crossword puzzles. When studying a new language, learners often focus on nouns, or persons, places, and things, as well as action words, or verbs. They also focus on learning words that describe nouns, called adjectives, as well as words that modify verbs, called adverbs.
From there, language learners often focus on idioms, or regional figures of speech, and slang. They begin to collect words and phrases that assist them in their day-to-day lives as well as those which further their personal, educational, and professional goals.
Whether an individual is learning English or is a native speaker furthering their language use, there are several methods which have the potential to increase their vocabulary exponentially! What follows are just a few suggestions.
Etymology, The History of Words
Etymology is the study of the origins, or history of, a word’s usage through time. Online dictionaries such as dictionary.com, provide free access to a treasure trove of words, their historic and alternate meanings. It’s fascinating to learn how word usage changes over time. Consider the word, “fantastic”, for example. According to dictionary.com, there are seven meanings, one of which is defined as: “conceived or appearing as if conceived by an unrestrained imagination; odd and remarkable; bizarre; grotesque:fantastic rock formations; fantastic designs.” The word arose circa 1350-1400, and is attributed to Middle English as well as Greek origins: “fantastik pertaining to the imaginative faculty andphantastikós able to present or show (to the mind).”
Prefixes, Root Words, and Suffixes
Learning prefixes, suffixes, and root words is another vocabulary-expanding activity. A prefix is attached to the front of a root word to modify its meaning. The root word, “moral,” for example, relates to standards of behavior, and gives rise to interpretations such as the proverbial “right versus wrong”, depending upon an individual’s code of ethics. When the prefix, “a”, which means “not”, is added to the root word, it signifies “not moral.”
These word parts can be located in standard collegiate-style dictionaries as well as online at various sites. At Prefixsuffix.com, “English Language Root Search,” there are a variety of excellent resources that include a search engine, charts, articles on linguistics, as well as guidelines for creating new words, or neologisms.
Read the Dictionary and Thesaurus
When reading and writing, it’s an excellent practice to look up words in an online or print dictionary such as The Oxford Dictionary or The American Heritage Dictionary, to check their definitions, alternate meaning(s), and spelling(s). Another excellent practice is to refer to a thesaurus, like Roget’s Thesaurus, for synonyms, which are words with similar, but not necessarily exact meanings, and antonyms, which are words with opposite meanings.
At Thesaurus.com, which is a similar site to dictionary.com, there are a variety of features as well. Consider how often the word “awesome,” which basically means “filled with awe,” is used. Try one of these synonyms instead: “alarming,” “daunting,” “formidable,” “impressive,” “wondrous,” or “zero cool.” Be sure to look up their dictionary definitions prior to using them, however, to learn their specific nuances. I also recommend stopping by the Urban Dictionary.
Subscribe to Email lists, Newsletters, and Blogs
There are a staggering number of websites, email list groups, newsletters, blogs, and other types of commentary posted and published by a variety of groups and individuals interested in language use and related commentary.
Other Word-Building Activities
Maintain a vocabulary journal. Write down the words, their origins, synonyms, antonyms, and sentences. Be sure to also include a bibliographic citation of where you obtained this information so you can return there for more information.
This journal can also include descriptive passages that explain where the word was heard, and in which context. Be sure to refer to Purdue University’s THE OWL, an Online Writing Lab that is available to the public that provides excellent material on citing sources and other academic and professional materials.
Word games like Scrabble™, Mad Libs™ or crossword puzzles are also excellent methods to sharpen your mind, develop your vocabulary, and have fun at the same time. Word-association games can be created on-the-spot, too, and can be ice-breakers at social gatherings as well as in the classroom.
Read Something Every Day
It’s important to read something every day – and not just for vocabulary development. Reading engages and expands the mind. It provides information as well as entertainment. Furthermore, many readers enjoy discussing and writing about what they read, so it’s another way to share insights and connect on a social level.
Reading a variety of texts is an essential component of this process as well. There are millions of texts out there to be read: nonfiction and fiction books; magazines, newspapers, and other periodicals; website blogs and articles; manuals, catalogues, handouts, and flyers; and even buttons, bumper stickers, and T-shirts.
In closing, creating and maintaining a daily practice makes a significant difference. Some experts say that it takes a month to create a new habit, while others argue that it can occur on-the-spot. Expert arguments aside, begin with spending a minimum of twenty minutes of focused time per day and personally evaluate the results.
“Awesome.” Thesaurus.com. 13 August 2010. web.
“Fantastic.” Dictionary.com. 13 August 2010. web.