Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Monday, April 16, 2012

Vocab Quiz on Thursday!

I had very few schoolteachers--just one I can think of--who made a routine out of vocabulary study.  He was Mr. Augustus H. Brunelle, one of my English teachers at Hiram High School; I had "Gus" (a name we never uttered in his presence--though, later, I learned from his college yearbook that his friends called him "Gussie," and all his adult Hiram friends called him "Gus"; my generation never addressed adults by their first names: it was a capital crime in our house) for English II and English III--and for both courses we had regular vocabulary lists.  (By the way, did you notice how the long parenthetical stuff in the previous sentence pretty much ruined its flow.  I'd like to say I did it on purpose--just to show you--but I didn't.)

I'm not sure where Mr. Brunelle found the words he gave us--from our reading?  From a prepared list somewhere?  But I already knew a lot of them, mostly because my parents were teachers and my older brother, Richard, had/has a huge vocabulary, a vast portion of which involved insulting words he learned, I'm sure, to apply to me.

In college, our professors expected us to learn words from our reading and our participation in class.  Dr. Ravitz sometimes used words I'd never heard before (apotheosis, proem, and my favorite--lycanthropy), and I would scurry back to the dorm to look them up in my Webster's Collegiate--no dictionary.com in those days.  But I was not assiduous (!) about looking up words I came across in my reading.  If I couldn't figure out their meaning from context, I pretty much just skipped them, figuring they weren't all that important if I didn't know them.

Later, a teacher myself, I didn't start doing regular vocabulary work for, oh, ten years or so.  And then it became a part of my weekly routine the rest of my career.  I always tried to take words from the literature we read during the year: I was able to tell the kids, "I know you will see this word at least one more time."  And so it was that my eighth graders, who would read The Call of the Wild, learned populous, prowess, arduous, and others.  And my juniors, later on, learned eldritch and preternatural and panoply from The Scarlet Letter.

We reviewed the words throughout the year; by the end, they were responsible for all 200 of them.  I have no daffy hope that all my students remember all of them.  Like everything else in school, we remember what we want to--or need.  So I'm guessing a lot of my former eleventh graders have hung onto libertine and have let lacustrine loose.  Just a guess, mind you.

I remember reading Sailor on Horseback, Irving Stone's fanciful biography of Jack London, when I was in school, just for the fun of it.  And Stone repeated therein a story that London had told himself--about the young man's obsession with words.  He wrote down unfamiliar ones on little slips of paper, carried them in his pocket, fastened them to his mirror--all in an effort to improve himself.  (He'd dropped out of elementary school; later, he tried high school for a year, college for a year.)

My own interest in vocabulary developed much later.  My parents, worried in my adolescence about my infantile vocabulary, dominated as it was by words about baseball, TV Western heroes, bicycles, slang, and sesquipedalian insults learned from my brother, bought me a paperback, 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary; I lasted two days.  And my grandmother--Scrabble player nonpareil--would urge me to do the vocabulary feature in Reader's Digest--WordPower.  I preferred the jokes.  Told them to my friends as if I'd composed them.

In college, I picked up a little--mostly because my friends were smart and could see the vacant look in my eyes when they used words I didn't know.   And I knew I wanted to know lycanthropy--a word that has come in very handy since the advent of the Underworld films.

But my passion for vocabulary ignited in graduate school.  It was then that I began doing what Jack London did--writing words down, memorizing them, using them in my essays and papers (much to the chagrin of one prof, who told me to cut it out).

Nowadays, I subscribe to several word-a-day services online; I have word-a-day calendars around the house; I always look up unfamiliar words in my reading.  And I've worked with editors who've told me to back off a little, though I have managed to get callipygian (having beautiful buttocks) in the pages of the Plain Dealer.  Perhaps my life's grandest achievement.

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