Accruing a Vocabulary

A writer’s bricks and mortar are words and grammar. This is why it is important to set aside time every day to read, the regularity being more important than the amount. Just as there is no musician who does not listen to music nor any painter who does not study the work of other painters, so there is no writer who does not read—for ideas, for grammar, and for vocabulary.

In an earlier post I talked about the practice of keeping a commonplace book, which is a record of your reading. It is the place where you transcribe short passages, maybe only a sentence or phrase, that have arrested your attention for some reason; and in doing that, you will inevitably be at times recording words with which you are not entirely familiar.

One simple technique that helps in accruing a vocabulary as we read is to place an “x” in the margin at the line where we have found a word that is either completely unfamiliar or perhaps only vaguely recognizable to us. We can frequently infer the meaning of the word from the context of what we are reading, and if that is the case, it is often better only to make this kind of notation in the margin and not interrupt our reading to look up the word in the dictionary there and then. But the time will come when we have to gather up the words we have noted and transcribe them to our commonplace book. Then we turn to a dictionary and establish their meaning and basic grammatical information.

That basic information includes the etymology of the word, its derivation or source; you will often find it within hard brackets [  ] in the dictionary entry. It is common to overlook the etymology because we may think the information is too academic to be practical. This is a mistake. Knowing where a word comes from can be a storehouse of images that we can use to build out our first thoughts about an idea. Here, for example, is the etymology of the word mortgage as we might learn it from a college-level dictionary:

          mortgage < Ofr, mort gage, < mort, dead + gage, pledge

With a quick glance to the dictionary’s list of abbreviations, we learn that Ofr means Old French, and that in that language the word mort meant dead and the word gage meant pledge. Behind our word mortgage, then, are the ideas of something given to mark a promise (a pledge) and the ending (or death) of that pledge when full payment has been made. And this imagery continues in the word amortize, the calculating of principal and interest as we gradually pay down—or kill off—the original pledge.

Remember that writing is an art, and every art has its medium, the material it uses to represent ideas. Writers are attempting to put ideas into the medium of words, and the more words we have at our disposal, the readier we will be to communicate (the etymology of which means to share) our experience acutely and engagingly with others.

Leave a comment

Join the Discussion