When I was in junior high, my parents were so worried about my puny vocabulary that they got me a copy of 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary, a self-help text that I tried for a day (or two--nowhere near 30!) before I gave up and returned to comic books and the sports pages and the Cheerios Kid on the cereal box.
In my reading of books, I had a sure-fire system when I confronted new words: I tried context clues, and, failing to find any, merely skipped the word and raced on.
Not many of my teachers taught vocabulary per se. One did, though. Mr. Brunelle. Hiram High School. I remember one word he taught--tacit--a word I still use in tacit tribute to him. (And a word I always put on my own vocabulary lists--another tacit tribute.) In college, our professors assumed that if we didn't know a word they used in class (or we encountered in our reading), we would look it up. Which I often did, even though it involved a dictionary book and not a quick consult with dictionary.com.
As my education and life scrolled along, however, I more and more became obsessed with words and now look up any and every unfamiliar word I come across. I don't, of course, remember them all, but some I do. That old rule about using it or losing it applies with new words.
Which takes me back to one of the first "big words" I ever learned--propinquity--a word I thought about this week because it popped up on my word-a-day tear-off calendar (see below). I heard it on a TV show, one of those programs involving teens and public school, but I can't remember which one: Mr. Peepers (1952-55)? Our Miss Brooks (1952-56)? The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1959-63)?
It involved, as I remember, a high school boy who was interested in a girl who didn't seem to notice him. Someone (teacher? friend?) told him to try propinquity, a word that, thankfully, the suggesting character defined for his friend (and me). As I recall, the friend tried it (sitting near her in class); it worked. (I think.)
I just this minute typed into Google the titles of the shows, one at a time, along with the word propinquity. And I got some hits--Dobie Gillis!--which, to be perfectly honest (can you be imperfectly honest?), had been my first guess.
It's from an episode called "Love Is a Science" (from 1959). And my memory failed me. It involved a character named Zelda Gilroy, who always sits near Dobie Gillis (alphabet!) and who tells him that they're attracted to each other because of ... propinquity. Here's a link to the actual dialogue--written--that informs Dobie about the concept.
And here's a link to the episode on YouTube!
**PS--Later, a teacher myself, I taught vocabulary all the time, later on figuring out that it made sense to teach kids words they were going to encounter in our reading assignments. But that's another (boring) story for another (boring) time ...
***PPS--In Latin I, encountering propinquitās (nearness), I had an epiphany!