Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Words

Have you donated rice yet? This site is perhaps the most brilliantly addictive thing I’ve seen on the Internet: it’s a test that allows you to donate rice to the world’s poor by showing off your vocabulary! The first few are low balls; if you get them right, the words become progressively harder. Eventually it comes down to guesswork, and the rule of thumb I follow is that (a) the longest option is usually the right one and (b) the answer that looks right usually is. (There are no trick questions – this is about giving food to the hungry, not making people look dumb, unlike Are You Smarter than a Canadian Fifth-Grader? – which should so be called Are You Smarter than a Canadian Grade-Five Student because here in Canada we don’t know about these “fifth-graders” or “sophomores” of which you speak.)

Playing with words this way has reminded me of that set of words in my vocabulary that I can trace to a single source – the person or event that taught me the word in the first place.

Lugubrious: I learned this one in grade ten during rehearsals for our high-school production of Our Town. Mr. Rambault was directing the third act, the one in which Emily dies and takes up residence in the town cemetery with various other local dead people. “You are not to be at all lugubrious in this scene,” he instructed the actors portraying the cemetery inhabitants (they nodded wisely, with no idea of what he was talking about, and I was vastly entertained by the possibility of accidental acts of lugubriousness being committed as a result of their confusion). Today I always think of the word as denoting a kind of Beetlejuice-style melancholy, all creepy and mummy-like.

Gregarious: Mr. Rambault again, describing the rambunctious cast members who found it so utterly impossible to keep quiet while other cast members were rehearsing. The word is memorable, perhaps, because I wholly lacked this quality: I sat primly in the auditorium seat, desperately wanting to be included in the laughter and horseplay of the gregarious theatre people around me.

Dichotomy: Psychology 100, first-year university. Along with “paradigm” and “continuum,” this was a word that made me feel like a real university student.

Diaphanous: Harlequin romance, circa 1989. Never let it be said that there is nothing to be learned from reading romance novels.

Superlative: I learned this word from reading books, possibly by L.M. Montgomery, but I learned how to pronounce it from the mother of one of my high-school friends. She had invited me over for supper, and for dessert she served a delicious baked apple full of cinnamon and brown sugar. “This is superLATEively good!” I told her – and she didn’t hide her laughter quite quickly enough to fool me.

Zeugma: This is one of those words I’ve learned from having to teach it to other people. It refers to the yoking of two words (usually two subjects or objects of the same verb) for comic effect, most notably by Alexander Pope in The Rape of the Lock, where he jokes about state officials who “sometimes counsel take ... and sometimes tea” or sentimental ladies who grieve the loss of a husband or a lapdog with equally noisy tears. Mainly, though, I like this word because it’s fun to say – much like “magma” (in a suitably Dr. Evil-style accent), only better.

Chiasmus: Same as above.

I’ve been teaching classes lately on academic writing, trying to establish when it’s acceptable to use big essay-flavour words and when a simpler word would be preferable. We’ve been looking at examples of academic writing and I’ve been taken aback by how many words are new to my students: denizen, garrulous, chaste, ravish. Some are able to use contextual clues and root words to figure out the meaning of an unfamiliar word, but many more are not. When I teach Shakespeare’s sonnet 116 (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments...”) my students rarely know what the word “bark” refers to (as in “a guide to every wandering bark”). To me, the word “embark” gives a substantial clue, but to others the word remains murky, impenetrable. I find myself thinking of Mr. Rambault these days, that short, Puckish, theatrical man whose choice of words always seemed so endearingly absurd, who spoke so earnestly without the least awareness of the amused non-comprehension with which we received his well-meant words.

42 comments:

Grilled Pizza said...

Yet again the British are way behind with their NEW series "are you smarter than a 10 year old"
We really need to catch up lol

niobe said...

I've been terrified to click on that site precisely because of the addictiveness factor, particularly given that (I ruefully admit) I'm already far too fond of showing off my vocabulary.

Veronica Mitchell said...

What a memory!

What keeps the site from being completely addictive to me is that sometimes the definitions are inaccurate. If they stuck with word A "is most like" word B, I would be okay with it, but instead they use "means."

And I am embarrassingly aware of the level of snobbery I have reached when I complain that a game designed to appeal to my snobbery is not accurate enough.

Heather said...

Impressive vocabulary! How often are you inclined to use those words in daily conversation. Thanks for the link to the site. Totally addictive!

http://3boysundermyroof.blogspot.com

Sue said...

Wow! I thought I had a decent vocabulary, but lugubrious was a new one for me. {{heading over to play the game, er donate rice}}

Janet said...

That rice game *is* addictive! Although, I wish I had read your post before clicking over because I assumed that there was some trick involved and got the first answer wrong even though it was an easy word. :-( I got the rest of the answers correct, but quit after 500 grains of rice.

Two words that stick out in my mind:
1) Ubiquitous - A senior manager at the software company where I used to work used this word, um, ubiquitously in every speech he ever gave. It became a game where we underlings would keep track of how many times he said it by making marks in our notebooks. It made us look interested and productive.

2) Chasm - I remember this one because I had seen it on a book title and pronounced it with a CH instead of a hard C. I was a co-op student on a work term during university and one of my full time colleagues teased me mercilessly for the rest of the term. Ugh.

slouching mom said...

ooh, off to plant the seeds of yet another addiction.

Lawyer Mama said...

Now I must spend the rest of the afternoon on that site. Thaaaanks.

Julie Pippert said...

What a cool idea. I'm hesitating on thanking you for the link until I see the long-term effect it has on my schedule. ;)

Good list of words (which I knew---but then my sister used my own blog to call me a Walking Dictionary and commenters usually say, "WTF did you just write? Hey, over here! I need a dictionary.)

Veronica's comment is cracking me up.

(What do you have instead of sophomores? And I've been meaning to ask...you read LM Montgomery in schools? Like assigned by a teacher?)

Julie
Using My Words

Beck said...

Ah. That reminds me that I used the word lascivious for years, feeling VERY smart and then my mother gently let me know that I was pronouncing it ALL WRONG. Oh noes! The shame!

Suki said...

OMG, this is so very addictive! Thanks, now I don't have to feel guilty about not studying Old English! :D

Oh, and thanks again for Zuegma. I always forget what it is, but forget to look it up when I reach a dictionary. :P

Jenifer said...

Our favourite office big cheese was synergy, it word be trotted out over and over. I get many strange looks for my vocabulary sometimes, oh well.

Off to donate...

Momish said...

I'll be back to read this post with dictionary in hand! In the meantime, off to give some rice, although something tells me I will barely have enough to feed a mouse.

Karen said...

I will now be lost in the hole of FREE RICE for the remainder of nap time at my house. Thank you, I think.

Kit said...

I love using long words in every day conversation when they fit just right and express so perfectly and succinctly what I want to convey, though sometimes I feel like the parrot in Gerald Durrell's Talking Parcel , whose job it is to exercise all the words in the dictionary, by using them at least once a year in conversation so they don't fall into disuse!

DaniGirl said...

It's not just the $5 words that can be tricky - the little ones will trip you up, too. It was only last year that I realized the word "awry" that I'd been reading (and pronouncing in my head) for years as uh-rhye was actually the word I'd been hearing as "aw-ree". And I'm a word snob of the highest order!

(Even though I have read neither Pride and Prejudice nor Jane Eyre. Yet. Do you still respect me? *wink*)

Off I go to feed the world...

bubandpie said...

I thought of two more:

Gross: Royal Ontario Museum, grade four field trip. (But I spelled it "grose" for many a diary entry thereafter.)

Precocious: Mary Poppins.

Julie P. - In high school we have grade ten, and in university we have second year. My grade six teacher assigned Anne of Green Gables, and I did a book report on The Blue Castle in high school.

Kyla said...

YOU! I started your post THIS MORNING, and have spent all of my blog reading time playing that FreeRice game! I'm up past 3,000. Big fun.

Mouse said...

In my field, it's imperative to throw around words like zeugma and chiasmus (plus prolepsis, metonymy, and their brethren).

I had similar experiences with the pronunciation side of things. I read widely and could use context to figure out meanings, but pronunciation tripped me up many times.

painted maypole said...

i love your high school drama teacher already.

when I was in college I was heading up a camp staff of other college students. After talking with them about the finer points of planning a successful campfire I asked them to respond, rather than look at me with such vacuous looks on their faces. i was later called a snob for using such a big word. Vacuous? I thought. That's not such a big word, and isn't it rather obvious what the root of it is?

sigh.

Julie said...

They don't know ravish? Really?

Right now my students are totally into "simulacra," which I taught them while we were reading Don DeLillo's novel White Noise. I think they (mostly seniors) now consider themselves full college students for knowing what they think is such a hard and fascinating word. It's cute watching them use it.

J said...

But it is uh rye for awry! I love merriam-webster.com they have a little sound thing so you can hear it pronounced too. Where are you living that you hear people call it aw-ree?!

My son came home from high school to ask me how I said ubiquitous...he'd had a teacher (not English) pronounce it "u-bee-kway-shus." Heh. I love to say that now, and then I usually follow up with a " No! You be kwayshus!" All in my head, of course, unless I'm only around family. I have very simple pleasures, obviously.

Julie said...

By the way: you weren't kidding about it being addicting. Whew! I had to stop myself at 1000 grains of rice because I could have played FOREVER.

KAL said...

What a great site! Thanks for sharing. I think.

Aliki2006 said...

I *loved* this site and was so excited when Mouse posted the link!

Her Bad Mother said...

Hermeneutics.

(Also, I've always loved 'Schenectady,' which is a place name, but still. SCHE-NEC-TADY. Love it.)

JCK said...

This was really fun to read. I love words of all kinds and enjoyed yours. I have been to that "rice" site. It is very addictive. The drama teachers always leave you with strong memories. It sounds like your teacher was special and verbose. ;)

Terri said...

Holy cow! You actually remember when you first learned the meaning of all of those words? I remember learning the word laconic in junior high. I also remember specifically using it in a casual conversation in order to sound erudite, another word I remember learning in junior high, but that's about it.

nomotherearth said...

Why oh why did you have to show me that site???

Magpie said...

Wow - that site is awesome. And diaphanous was one of the words for me to define!

winslow1204 said...

How interesting!

Mimi said...

Aha! I'm giving an exam in my lit crit class on Monday that has a vocab component -- I gave them the target text this week. 'Garrulous' is one of the words (shh, don't tell, okay?)

Ontology and Epistemology were my big 'university student' words. Sometimes, I still look them up, just to be sure I remember what they mean :-)

Bon said...

sagacious. my poli sci prof in university, who was so charming in his scruffy, patch-elbowed way, that i took all his courses and ended up with a minor in international relations, used that word on the very first day of class. i'd never heard it. of course, with his Brit accent, i thought he was saying "sar-gacious"...which i couldn't find in any dictionary. it was well into the course before i connected the dots.

i am now off to click to feed the world. ;)

Suz said...

It says something about me, but this has to be the most anxiety-producing, video game I've ever played. Ever. I got up to 170 grains of rice before I lost one and it was one that I KNEW. You're right...don't think so hard and just go with your gut. Back to playing....

Kara said...

Wow, cool site, unfortunately my vocab seems to be severely lacking lol, but I keep trying hoping to find words I do know :D

Christine said...

i am addicted to the rice game!!! my husband and i try to out "word" each other for way to long every day.

it's funny, i think i have a rather good sized vocabulary, but never use it. i know the meanings of so many words, but in my writing and in my speech i am pretty low brow.

ps--thanks for the comments at my place. it made me feel better to know that i wasn't alone in my experience.

alpineflower said...

Mmmm...I have fond memories of reading aloud from the dictionary with my dad after dinner. I'm off to donate rice!

kittenpie said...

Lugubrious always makes me think of the butler for the Addams.

Lisa b said...

That site is great It took me 400 bowls to realise that it was not going to cut me off, I had to decide to quit.

I love your words and the stories behind them. Dichotomy I learned in OAC history, or maybe that was diametrically opposed. My grad school words were epistomology and ontology. I still get a headache thinking about that class.

b*babbler said...

No. Time. To. Comment.

Too. Busy. Playing.

Must. Stop.

edj said...

I love that site too! So much fun. I enjoyed your association of certain words with certain people.
I must admit I laughed a bit at your knowing the word superlative but not knowing how to pronounce it. That STILL occasionally happens to me! The problem of reading too much I guess.
It's really funny with my kids though. They read better in French than in English, and I am having so much fun this year listening to them read things aloud. (Yes, I do correct them...I am a nice considerate mother)
My non-native speakers had an extremely difficult time discerning when to use the big words--actually they ALWAYS use the long words, and it's unintentionally funny because their grammar level doesn't match their vocab level.

odd facts said...

I love this site!!!