Saturday, February 13, 2016
I wasn't always a word-nerd, believe me. In fact, I'm absolutely certain. In boyhood, I used a very simple technique when I came across a word I didn't know in my reading: I skipped it.
But as my Facebook friends know now, I'm continually posting words on my page--words from my tear-off calendar (see image above), words from the several online word-a-day sites I subscribe to, words I've come across in my reading. But--as I said--it warn't always so.
When I was a young adolescent, in fact, my parents--worried (no, alarmed) about my, uh, insufficient vocabulary, bought me a copy of 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary (it looked like the image), which is still in print. I think I got through Day One (maybe Two?) before I cast it aside and picked up a Superman comic--or the Plain Dealer sports pages. Words? I got all I need.
Well, not really. When I (word-poor) got to college, I discovered very quickly that I needed to learn more. In high school study hall I'd read Jack London's autobiographical novel, Martin Eden, and recalled that Martin--passionate about becoming a writer--would write on little slips of paper those unfamiliar words he'd come across. Stick them on his mirror. Carry them around in his pocket and study them at odd moments. Reading the book, I thought this was madness.
Later, I learned that London himself had done this.
Later, I was doing it myself (and still do--well, not on the mirror: At my age I try to avoid that evil invention).
When I became an English teacher (fall 1966), I soon found myself teaching vocabulary words to my eager (?) seventh and eighth graders. (I would continue the practice my final decade of teaching, 2001-2011, at Western Reserve Academy (juniors mostly), and I still enjoy posting on Facebook those words that used to be on my old vocab lists, those words that occasionally pop up on one of my word-a-day sites.
I still love finding words I don't know--and I sometimes post them on this site on Sundays (when I do my eclectic "Sunday Sundries" posts).
Oh, when I was in the early days of my VocabMadness, I used to learn new words all the time from William F. Buckley, Jr. Although I didn't exactly agree with his politics, I enjoyed his prose (and his spy novels with Blackford Oakes). I even remember a few words I learned from him--like anfractuous and maieutic (my spellchecker just tried to change this to magnetic). I actually used the former in an essay I published in Buckley's National Review back in the fall of 1979. He must have smiled, thinking: I know where this presumptuous young man [yes, I was in my 30s] learned this word!
Sometimes it got/gets out of hand. When I was in grad school, I once used the word spatchcock (a game bird, split open and grilled) in a paper for an Education class. My prof told me to lay off; he said he didn't like pulling Webster's Third off his shelf (no dictionary.com in those days!).
My editors for my various book reviews have sometimes supplied synonyms for the words I used. One, I remember, got by, though---because the editor really liked it (callipygian--having well-shaped buttocks).
I remember watching Buckley on TV once when the interviewer asked him about his vocabulary, implying that WFB should "dial it back" a notch.
And Buckley said, basically: "Hey, everyone knows words other people don't know. I use the words I know and am comfortable with."
Right on, Bill. And RIP.