As a kid, one of my best-loved books was Harriet the Spy. As part of her spy technique, Harriet carried a notebook wherever she went and wrote down everything she overheard. Those things she didn’t understand, she asked about. Among my favorite moments was when Harriet asked her father what “I’ve had it” meant. To which he responded, “Had it? Had it?? It just means tired.”
But while many of us will happily spend hours on the web doing copious amounts of research to prepare for our vacation, track down the foreign exchange student we knew in eleventh grade, or research the tickle we’ve had in the back of our throat for a week, we are less inclined to do a fast, in-and-out check on a vocabulary word or industry term we don’t know when we bump into it in our day-to-day conversation. In fact, the practice of actively researching these words and phrases usually sounds like, “Well, I’m not 100% sure, but I think it means X…”
The trouble with this approach is that every now and then you might find yourself using a word in a way that undermines the point you’re trying to make, as one of my clients did recently when referring to something as “infinitesimal”: her perception being that because it contained the word “infinite” it meant large, when, in fact, it means tiny….This didn’t end well.
So what do I recommend?
Well, in addition to the notebook technique employed by Harriet, you might also bookmark www.dictionary.com on your computer, an alternative that has the added advantage of allowing you to listen to how the word is pronounced, since you’re more likely to use it if you feel comfortable knowing how it’s said. They also have a free word-of-the-day email you can sign up for.
Another fantastic, free tool, should you wish to actively expand your vocabulary, is signing up for www.wordsmith.org—whose capacity to introduce me to words I have never come across never ceases to amaze (If you’re skeptical, consider these entries, all of which caught me off guard: subintelligitur, quodlibet, and infundibuliform.) In addition to signing myself up, I have signed up a number of my clients, and that’s been one of my most popular gifts.
Frances Coles Jones