a writer's journey as a reader

Archive for the tag “vocabulary”

Why We Say: Old Words, New Meaning

Immersed in the study of Hamlet, I currently have to pause in our scrutiny of the emo Dane to explain an old word that Shakespeare uses that now has new context. Elizabethan slang is a study in itself. “Get thee to a nunnery” and “You are a fishmonger” as well as “Are you honest?” have a subtext if their own.

Moving to the present–

There are some words that used to mean one thing, however, due to current usage have evolved differently in connotation and denotation. These are standouts from an article by the Mirror:


In Roman times addicts were broke folk given as slaves to the people they owed money to. 

It comes from the Latin addictus, which meant “a debtor awarded as a slave to his creditor”.

In the 1600s it was used in the sense of giving yourself to someone or some practice.


In the 1300s it originally meant “inspiring wonder” and was a short version of “full of awe”. But now the word has purely negative connotations.


It may now be the way the BBC spreads the news, but in 1767 “broadcast” meant sowing seeds with a sweeping movement of the hand or a “broad cast”. Its media use began with radio in 1922.


Cute was a shortened form of acute, meaning “keenly perceptive and shrewd” in the 1730s. 

But by the 1830s it was part of American student slang, meaning “pretty, charming and dainty”. 

And, bizarrely, the original sense of “dainty” was “worthy and substantial”.


If you’re thinking of telling your beloved how fantastic they look today, think again.

Unless, that is, they look like a Hobbit or an Avatar (whatever floats your boat).

The 14th century meaning is “existing only in imagination”, from the old French term “fantastique”.

It was not until 1938 that the word was first used to mean “wonderful or marvelous”.


You may be thinking of Keanu Reeves in his 1999 hit sci-fi movie. But in reality “matrix” comes from the 14th century French word meaning “pregnant animal”.

It went on to mean “womb or source”. Eventually in 1555 it was adapted to mean “a place where something is developed”.


In the 1400s a nervous person was actually “sinewy and vigorous” – as the Latin word nervus applied to both sinews and nerves.

By 1665 nerves were better understood and by 1734 the term meant “suffering a disorder of the nervous system”.

By 1740 it meant “restless, agitated, lacking nerve” and it then became a widespread euphemism for mental illness – forcing the medical community to coin “neurological” to replace it in the older sense.

“Nervous wreck” was first used in 1899.


Derived from the Latin nescius meaning “ignorant”, the word began life in the 14th century as a term for “foolish” or “silly”.

It soon embraced bad qualities, such as wantonness, extravagance, cowardice and sloth.

In the Middle Ages it took on the more neutral attributes of shyness and reserve.

Society’s admiration of such qualities in the 18th century brought on the more positively charged meanings of “nice” we know today.

I won’t even address how “literally” is so wrongly used today. Some pet peeves are best kept quiet.


Word Nerd Confessions: January

I really like the time around New Year’s. Turning the calendar page, fresh start, anticipating what’s ahead, knowing that the midpoint of the school year has arrived and I’m ready to return for second semester.

It’s also a time I feel the need to tidy up: closets, projects, pantry, and my email gets a sound once over. This month’s feature of Word Nerd gets an extra dose of cleaning up. Some of these words have been lingering in the queue for over two years. Time to dust them off and send them out in the bright new year of 2019.

*This became the word one year in my AP Lit class. It found its way merrily into many an essay.

*I do so like this one. However, I feel a bit snooty when I insert it in a sentence.

*A personal favorite. I do so cringe when people say “a small, little”–it’s small or little. And don’t say “very unique” around me either. Yes, real estate blurbs are the worst offenders.

*footle and gleek must be pals

*As a child I remember a comic strip called “The Katzenjammer Kid’s”–they were naughty little trouble makers. Ah, they obviously caused their parents distress.

This word is supposedly obsolete, yet I think it could catch on once again. Bumper sticker stuff: Experience Esperance.

Well, my word closet is a bit less crowded. I hope you picked up a couple or a few new words to carry you into the new year.

Any favorites from the list? As for the usual challenge of creating a sentence with all the words (20!)? Only if you are up for it.

Word Nerd Confessions: December

[somewhat hummed to Tannenbaum]

December. Oh, December. How colorful, your days are bright. With evergreen and flashy lights, your lengthy nights are cozy bright. December. Oh, December. Your passing will soon bring June.

Don’t get me wrong. December is fairly pleasant, considering all the snow that must be dealt with. Decorations, festivities, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, Christmas Break. I like December much more than January. But that is next month. This month let’s focus on the bright, brilliant, and happy of the Christmas month.

And this last word is to bring in the new year…

Word Nerd Confessions: November

Fall has officially set up its presence. The aspen, birch, and maple trees disrobed within a week’s span with the help of couple of brisk windstorms. Temperatures hover around freezing, and the sun offers minimal light with little warmth and disappears shortly around 4 pm. The preparation for winter is underway. The Hubs threatens to put on the snow tires since black ice is fact of life not to be ignored. I understand his concern, but snow tires seems to invite or acknowledge snow. We already had a flurry of snow that had the grace to be embarrassed enough by its early arrival and leave by the next afternoon.

This month’s words reflect my ambivalence towards fall: do I mourn the passing of summer or prepare for winter with my usual reluctance? Or do I just accept it knowing spring is not that far away?

So–how do you feel about fall?

Word Nerd Confessions: October

No sooner than I share out some of my treasured lexicon than they multiple whilst my back is turned. Scamperous little verbiage. Well, let’s shake out their nest and see what we can find:


When we jump out and wildly applaud the artist shouldn’t we be shouting “bravura” instead of “bravo”? Hmm, needs investigating…


I didn’t realize we had this in common with bears.


Okay, next excellent essay I grade shall have the distinction of “pellucid”–that should rock the writer…


Cheese, Grommit.


Oh, yes. This perfectly describes the high school hallway conversations between classes.


I can see why this one is not in popular use.


Nope. Never heard of this one. Fortnight, yes. Sennight nope. Does the senate meet in a sennight?


Another Year of Interesting Words

Keeping track of words learned is becoming as much of a habit as keeping track of books read. Learning words definitely is result of reading books. I wonder if there is a cousin Good Reads tracker app for Good Words yet. No doubt there is. Or maybe the next dot com app millionaire is in the wings. There is a untapped market for word nerds.

My method is fairly Neanderthal. I’m basically in hunter gatherer mode as I set forth daily upon the plains of learning. That is a bit much, isn’t it? Actually, it’s more or less serendipity. When reading, and I come across words of interest, I type them into my phone in my notes under the file Vocabulary. And like the Guardians of the Galaxy Collector, I keep them there so I can view them.  Some are prettier than others, while some are rare and exotic, and some I take out of my collection and begin implementing, realizing their worth increases with continuous use.

Here are some live captures. For interest, I state where I captured the lexical little beastie.

 The Year of Lear by James Shapiro

  • recusant: a person who refuses to submit to an authority or to comply with a regulation. [Lots of Catholic/Protestant tussling going on in England around 1606]

The Victorian Life: Modern Adventures in Nineteenth Century Culture, Cooking, Fashion, and Technology by Sarah A. Chrisman

  • quotidian: of, or occurring every day; daily [a 21st century woman choosing a 19th century lifestyle would get used to the daily routine of repetive tasks such bread making]

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. NOTE: as long as keep teaching the novel I keep rereading it, and yet I still find new words. Fascinating.

  • deglutition: process of swallowing
  • celerity: swiftness of movement

Emma (The Austen Project #3) by Alexander McCall Smith

  • impedimenta: equipment for an activity or expedition, especially when considered as bulky or an encumbrance [this one I’m willing to trot out and air as in addressing my students, “Excuse me, your impedimenta is blocking the aisle.”]
  • canard: unproven rumor or story

This next batch mainly derive their existence and capture from the books of D.E. Stevenson. It is an on-going project to read her legacy of 40 novels (give or take a couple of Mrs. Tim’s). She’s primarily writing about Scottish and English life pre-WWII to 1975. It’s been interesting to see which words she favors and which words were in vogue during the span of her long career. She did favor the sprinkling of French.

  • ructions: a disturbance or quarrel [“ruckus” a relative?]
  • pourboire: a gratuity or tip
  • cavil: make petty or unnecessary objections
  • muckle: to cover inanimate objects in glitter in a vain attempt to make them appealing enough to buy [Mike Allegra dislikes muckley Christmas cards]
  • gaucherie: a tactless or awkward act
  • vaunted: highly praised
  • pied-a-terre: a temporary or second residence [very handy for the dismal months of winter glum]
  • arriviste: a social climber, a blunder

Do you collect words while reading? 

A Few Words to the Wise

It’s not news that the American education system is not working well. I came across an article that made me stop and think about whether my own teaching techniques are contributing to the problem. My paradigm got a bit nudged. One thing I do agree with Hirsch is that vocabulary is an important aspect of student success. If you are interested in reading one man’s opinion about how to overhaul the education system I suggest you sit down with a cup of java or tea and take time to peruse and consider. It’s long, but chock full of thoughtful considerations:

The key to increasing upward mobility is expanding vocabulary.

E. D. Hirsch, Jr. is a professor emeritus of education and humanities at the University of Virginia and the founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation and he is smart. The kind of smart that makes me feel a bit more brainer after reading most anything he writes. You might have heard  of these titles, and even if you haven’t you will want to reflect of this pithy quote:

Word Nerd and Proud of It

I am a professed Word Nerd. I collect words (lexophile) study them (etymologist), mispronounce them (cacoepy), and read about them (Book Booster). Maybe my mom propped up my crib with an old dictionary, because no one else in my family shows this proclivity.

My love for words overflows into all facets of my life. As a kid, other kids would roll their eyes at my vocabulary, and teachers would be either amused or irritated at me knowing what the vocabulary word meant without any prompting. “Show off” was sometimes bantered about when I was around. Not really. Misunderstood for my zeal of learning vocabulary, yes, that would be better.

Zoom up to my young mothering years (an empty nester now–still mothering, but from a defined distance). I guess I nearly ruined my children’s lives by trying to instill the love of words into their little bodies. “No one talks like us, Mom!” And that was a bad thing? The payoff came much later, when recently the youngest progeny phoned to say the boss folk liked how well he could express himself in company meetings. Ah–delayed gratification.

As a teacher, I legitimately get to introduce vocabulary to students and interject my enthusiasm for increasing word strength and even test them on what the words they need to know for life and  for state required assessments and get paid for it (I just committed a polysyndeton with all those conjunctions–great word).

Lately, as a blogger, I get more attuned to posts about words dropping my way. For instance, I found this gem in my box not too long ago, even though it’s a 2012 post, it’s still relevant to me.  It’s all about Word Hacking, that delicious art of creating new words. There is all sorts of action and exercise in Word Hacking. There’s combining, mash ups, and verbalizing, and nouning. One could seriously lose calories by inventing new words. Shakespeare must have been in stellar shape with all his inventiveness. Doesn’t this look ever so fun? Check out the full blog post

Last Minute Housekeeping: 2014 Vocabulary

Before January totally rolls into February, I wanted to take up Vanessa-Jane Chapman’s nudging to “trot out” my 2014 vocabulary list. And I only thought about doing so because she did such a cool thing by coming up with a word of personal significance for each of the 365 days in 2014. Some of the words a person can only wonder about: Pirate?

My list seems rather mundane in comparison. I set out to record all the new-to-me or review, please words as I read last year. I usually read with my iPhone nearby and type them in my notes (which I can then email to my Google Docs account–handy). I started doing this with my AP reread novel Jane Eyre, which I began in February last year. Periodically I reread books I teach, just to refresh my memory of whatever it is I’m trying to impart to my students. I soon realized my vocabulary wasn’t up to snuff. Here’s a sampling of my Jane Eyre word collection:

appanage: benefit or rank belonging to someone
meretricious:attractive with no real value
diablerie: reckless in a charismatic way
seraglio: women’s apts in Muslim palace
puerile: childishly silly
avidity:keen interest or enthusiasm
inanition:exhaustion caused by lack of nourishment
elysium: Greek mythology-the place where Greek heroes went to be honored after their death
aspirant: ambitions to follow something, as in a political career
coadjutor: bishop which assists a bishop
ineradicable:unable to be destroyed or removed
pertinaciously:holding firmly to an opinion

Some of these I doubt I will be using anytime soon: “appange”? And others I hope to pop out with aplomb at some advantageous point in a conversation: “My inanition requires we go to lunch sooner than later.”  I seriously don’t think I will ever have an ocassion for “coadjutor”; however, I am prepared now should the need arise.

Other words I added from here and there encounters, including one from watching David Suchet in a Hercule Poirot episode and I ever so want to slide it into a conversation (look for *):

poltroon: utter coward
propound: put forward
adamantine: unable to be unbroken
apocryphal: doubtful statement
quash: reject as invalid especially in a legal procedure
blazon:form of poem which describes person through body part description. (Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 is a parody of the form).
*avuncular: acting as an uncle figure
venal: susceptible to corruption or bribery
louche: disreputable or sordid
gallimaufry: jumble
kloofs: African valley
intercalary: calendar alignment-Feb 29
imbroglio: confused situation
vitiated: impair vitality
vertiginously: high or steep
antinomy: a paradox
soteriology : the doctrine of salvation
verdure: lush, green vegetation
encomiums: speech of praise
abstruse: difficult to understand
perfidious: deceitful and untrustworthy

Has collecting these words improved my overall diction? No, not really. Truthfully, I forgot most of these until I attempted to entrap them in the block quote (I give up, Mike, I can’t figure out the boxy thing–sigh). So why do I bother with finding them, typing them in, defining them–yada, yada. Why? I am a confessed word nerd. I just gotta know what that word is. I have a compunction about taking the time to look up the meaning so I continue reading (or watching) my story without being bothered by not knowing. I don’t think that’s because I’m a librarian gigging as an English teacher–I just like words.

Any other word nerds out there? Any words off the list that totally pop out at you for being extra cool? How about “kloofs”? Tish Farrell–you run into any “kloofs” in your African adventures?

Walking Our Pet Words


An embarrassing story from teen years: I’m napping hard in my tent, exhausted from the grueling schedule of cycling up and down hills, navigating narrow country roads, and trying to avoid the fate of unfortunate roadside distraction. What normal 17-year-old girl signs herself up for a cycling tour around the Olympic Peninsula? Anyway, I was so exhausted I forgot all about our usual afternoon agenda meeting. When I finally woke up with that awful White Rabbit yelp of “I’m late! I’m late!” I knew I would not be able to sneak in unobtrusively. My embarrassment was doubled when the group all paused, turned to face me, gleefully shouting, “Terrific!” It was then I knew they were calling me out on my pet word.

Pet words. Admit it–you have at least one.  Maybe you have several on a leash and you walk them out and about without realizing it.

I happened upon Matthew J.X. Malady’s article “You Have A Word That You Constantly Use Without Realizing It — Here’s Where You Got It.” Personally I prefer the email forward title of “How ‘Signature Words Spread.”

As I read the article I began to better understand why I latch on to certain words. Here’s a snippet:

Diane Boxer, a professor at the University of Florida who specializes in sociolinguistics, says that when we find ourselves in a situation where someone uses language differently than we do, or words we’re unfamiliar with, we usually respond in one of two ways.

“We either start to mimic them in some way, or distinguish ourselves from their usage,” she says. “This has to do with how we want to portray our identities. If we identify with them, want to be like them, we’ll start speaking like they do.”

I can relate to that point. I may not do it consciously, although I think my brain picks up on admiration and rolls out a word or phrase associated with that person or character. However, it is embarrassing when we are called out on it. The article cites another reason we adopt pet words.


Stanford psychology professorBenoit Monin, I shouldn’t pat myself on the back too fervently. In many cases, when we decide to latch onto these sorts of words, it’s because we’re using language to put on a show. “There could be some element of language snobbery here,” says Monin, whose research focuses on self-image and social norms. “Like, ‘I’m a discriminate language user, and I use these rare words that few people use, and by using them I show that I’m educated.’ ”   

Oh dear, I don’t want to be considered a snob.  What about aficionado? I collect words. Some of them sound so cool I can’t avoid repeating them. There is also that “why order vanilla when huckleberry creme is available?” It seems so plebian to say plain words when so many variants are available. Is that snobbery  or creatively erudite?

The article goes on to mention research conducted by Duke University professor Dan Ariely and Stanford’s Jonathan Levay.

Ariely and Levav say that there exists “the desire to portray oneself as interesting and unique” when we interact with others, and that we will in some cases make irrational decisions to avoid looking like a copycat.  

I will admit I often strive to set myself apart. I often find myself grasping at ways to express myself in a memorable manner. Sometimes this works and sometimes this fails. As in Epic Failure. Note to self: check with urban dictionary before employing certain terms with teens when teaching.

This malady doesn’t cover one very prominent reason for signature or pet words: laziness. I know I fall back on certain words because I get into a habit of saying them.  When my “terrific” warning light flashes on my brain instrument panel, I know I’m close to getting a drubbing on overusage. This week I know I have to rid myself of “channeling” and “solid.” I recently purged lexicon retorts of “perfect.”

Do you have pet words you walk long and often? Is difficult for you to curb their exuberance to romp?

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