I freely admit that I am terrible at learning and retaining new words. In my defense, they are hard to remember and there happen to be quite a few of them. (For the curious, the Oxford English Dictionary—which does not include technical or regional vocabulary—has about 170,000 entries.) I am a computer science major and a transfer student, which means that I skipped out on University Writing. I claim no special authority when it comes to grammar or style or the English language in general. At least, I claim none other than what a passionate interest in those things might give me.
I first came to that realization when I started making flashcards for the writing section of the SAT; perhaps you had a similar experience. It was certainly the thought I could see dawning on a tutee of mine this summer when—an hour into our own flashcard prep session—we still had not gotten any further than “dogmatic.” Like me, he could understand the definitions of new words just fine, but he had trouble recalling the definitions of words he had already seen.
The key to really remembering a word is making a “word nexus,” as Maxwell Nurnberg calls it in his book “I Always Look Up The Word ‘Egregious.’” Learning the word and its definition is not enough; you need some other interesting fact or association to weld the two together.
In Chinese, for example, this trick is easy, because everything is a logogram, or a sign that represents a word. I have always thought the Chinese character for home or family looks like a family tree with a roof over it. Thanks to that image, I don’t think I will ever forget what that character means.
Unfortunately, an English word cannot give you the same kind of clue, but it can give you others. One good way to remember what a word means is to learn about its etymology. As part of my continuing campaign to justify my three semesters of Latin I took, this is a method I encourage. For example, I have filed away the word “magnanimous” as “magnus animus,” literally “great spirit” or “great soul,” which makes sense to me as a prerequisite for magnanimity.
Latin also proves particularly useful when it comes to prefixes and livestock: A classics major could easily remember the words “aggregate,” “congregate,” “segregate,” and “egregious” as “add to the herd,” “bring together the herd,” “set aside from the herd,” and “out from the herd.”
But when I told my tutee that he could remember “laud” by way of the Latin verb “laudare,” meaning “to praise,” he was—perhaps understandably—unmoved. So we tried something else: “laud” as in the last four letters of “applaud.” While it might not help him remember the exact definition of the word, he will always remember the connotation. We did something similar with “candor.” I just told him to think of the show “Candid Camera.” Any mnemonic will do; etymology isn’t necessary.
Even if you’ve made poor life decisions and are not a Latin or Greek scholar, the origin of a word can still be useful. As I learned from my tutee, “decimate” literally means “to reduce by one tenth,” which strikes me as oddly specific—but that is exactly why it is such a great way to remember the word.
Then, of course, there is “galvanize,” a verb which owes its existence to Luigi Galvani, an eighteenth century Italian with a predilection for electrocuting frogs. Having a large vocabulary alone will not make you a good writer, though it can help. And if you can pair a fact as interesting as that with every word you learn, you may come to see English less as a collection of potential flashcards and more as a collection of stories you won’t soon forget.
Sinclair Target is a Columbia College junior majoring in computer science. On Target runs alternate Fridays.