Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Ex Libris, Part II

I have always had a lame vocabulary. I didn't realize it until standardized testing hit, and my verbal scores consistently came in low, year after year. On the SAT and years later on the GRE verbal was at least 200 pts below math. The inaptitude turned out to be interlingual, when, after 27 college credits of Spanish, my oral examiner gave me high marks in every area except vocabulario. Same for my ASL tutor. More recent evidence was produced when my blog received an "Elementary School"* readability rating (thanks a lot, Mr. Genius.) I did invest in a hefty dictionary-thesaurus set to see me through college and grad school, but I admit I only used it for writing, almost never for reading.

Like everyone else, I was taught by my English teachers to use context when I came across a word I didn't know in literature. But this technique's limitation is the context itself! For example, I can glean that delft is a color, but what color? Erysipelas is obviously a disease, but I know nothing else about it. My vocabulary is not expatiated by using this method alone because I don't learn the words well enough to reuse them in my own language, and certainly not the multiple times necessary for lexicon incorporation. I suppose some people actually keep a dictionary nearby and look up new words, but that's too disruptive for me. My reading windows are small enough - if I looked up all the words I don't know, I'd never get anywhere. Instead, I just gloss over the obscurities and continue in ignorance. I don't understand how other people do it.

Ex Libris essay #2 is called The Joy of Sesquipedalians. Anne Fadiman grew up in a highly literary family - she and her brother used to compete to find the longest and strangest words. So she was both thrilled and horrified when, as an adult, she read a book** that contained 22 words she had never even seen before. She wrote them down and ran them by her family, then made a quiz to give to colleagues and friends. She also looked them up and used as many as she could in the writing of this piece, providing definitions for the others at the end.

About 15 pages later, I was having the same experience with Ex Libris, minus the thrill. The horror turned to frustration and embarrassment as I read page after page of words I didn't know, stuck in with a few I did. So I decided to follow Fadiman's example. I wrote down the words and you shall now be polled. Below are the 56 words I did not know in 140 pages of prose. They're in alphabetical order, followed by page number. As you look through the list, keep in mind that I'm starting off at 0, so if you even know 1 you beat me - and you don't even have context like I did! And if you do think you know one, look it up just to make sure. Ed, the king of fabricated word pidgins and near-homophones, took a look and said, "You don't know what provenance is?"
"It's provenance, not providence," I responded.
"Oh. Well what about patency?"
"Patency, not potency." Et cetera.

accreted 150
acolyte 13
alluvium 42
antients 109
bibliolatrus 37
bibliomane 57
bravura 60
captious 81
caroming 69
chrestomathy (back cover)
concatenation 92
dactyl 133
declivitous 147
delft 115
distaff 50
doppelganger 90
ectomorph 140
eidetic 67
eland 74
elegiac 13
embonpoint 97
emendation 137
enchiridion 155
erysipelas 146
frisson 64
gewgaws 52
hegemony 59
hortatory 47
hubristic 81
ichor 91
kerf 117
lapidary 33
legatees 128
lissome 77
lucubrations 117
necrosis 34
paean 148
palimpsests 41
parity 73
patency 56
peroration (back cover)
perspicacity 82
pettifogging 81
probity 141
prolix 93
provenance 88
ptomaine 98
purdah 89
salacities 128
schist 67
soidisant 33
spoor 93
spurious 58
turpitude 98
umber 44
villanelle 117

Ok, let's have your numbers. And any other recent new words you've learned. And how you learn and keep new words. And anything else you want to say about it. And let's hear from you ghost readers on this one, too - I know you're out there! Hmm, maybe we can play some kind of blog Balderdash with these...

Ex Libris has inspired me to read more, write more, learn and use more words, and do more to pass a love of reading and learning to my children. Thank you, Ms. Fadiman. It has been a fructiferous read.

*Upped to "High School" after this post - imagine that!

**The book was The Tiger in the House by Carl Van Vechten. The words she didn't know are: monophysite, mephitic, calineries, diapason, grimoire, adapertile, retromingent, perllan, cupellation, adytum, sepoy, subadar, paludal, apozemical, camorra, ithyphallic, alcalde, aspergill, agathodemon, kakodemon, goetic and opopanax.
I knew grimoire from Outlander and alcalde from Zorro, the Gay Blade.


Maren said...


I hate it when I can't quite get the whole meaning of a new word from the context. Very frustrating. I learn most of my new vocabulary by listening to Quinn and reading things he writes. My mac also has a great dictionary that is very easy to use, so I use it more than I've ever used a paper dictionary. But, as you say, not for learning things I've never heard of, but for looking up things I come across that I don't know.

I knew 8 of the words, but felt like I had to look up a few of them just to verify that I had them right. I knew acolyte (follower), alluvium (as in "alluvial fan", a goelogical term Dad taught me on one of our drives through the desert hills of California as a kid), delft (as in the blue in blue and white Dutch porcelain), distaff (spindle, from Proverbs 31), hegemony (political dominance, from a title on Quinn's bookshelf), parity (can mean both equality and having borne children), spurious (fake, from too many mystery books), umber (raw= yellowish brown, burnt= dark brown, from too many crayons).

I knew none of the author's list except alcalde, from the same unlikely vocab source as you. Congratulations on skipping middle school! That's an impressive leap. I wonder which words get you to genius level. I wish that tool had more information about how they score.

I'm not sure which words in my brain are new- I don't keep track. But I do know that I don't read enough, and when I do read it's usually not very high above my usual level. The book I've read most recently which made me really pay attention to the language was Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy. It wasn't something I could just jump into for a few pages while the kids did something else- it was a bit of a brain shift. However, I think that was because of the speech patterns and the age of the language, rather than the difficulty of the vocabulary.

Maren said...

Ok, Quinn got 16 of them plus monophysite from the Tiger in the House list. See? I just need to have more involved conversations with him about things other than the local news.

Disco Mom said...

Maybe I should call Quinn for a weekly tutoring conversation. Does he know so many because he's super smart, reads a lot, has a great memory, or a combination?

Tona said...

I knew 25 of them, but only one (besides alcalde) on the second list & that was sepoy, from reading The Far Pavilions. (Pavilions, good word). I knew acolyte, bravura, concatenation, dactyl, delft, doppelganger, ectomorph (sounds like something out of Ghostbusters), elegaic, gewgaws, hegemony, hortatory, hubristic, legatees, lissome, necrosis, paean (though I don't know how to pronounce it), palimpsests (did I spell that right? It means the original painting that can be barely discerned under the one that's been painted over it, it's a very hot word in American Studies essays), parity, perspicacity, provenance (also a much-used word in history), purdah (also from the Far Pavilions, I have it linked in my brain with suttee), schist, spurious, turpitude (always preceded by "moral"?), and umber. Cool words. I want to look up the rest!

Lindsay said...

My friend (who is also an English teacher) just introduced me to a site called freerice.com. Basically, it's an attempt to simultaneously end world hunger AND build your vocabulary. (Didn't think you could link those two, did you?) Anyway, check it out...it's kinda fun (and quite addicting).

Also, can't wait to read Ex Libris for myself!

dave said...

Freerice seconded!

Here's what I knew:

and from the second:

* probably learned while reading D&D books as a kid

Michelle said...

I too am a context reader and almost never take the time to look something up. I ask Dave, and he usually knows. I knew 6 of them: accreted (use it a lot of work, when describing an accretion of job responsibilities... i.e. your job gets bigger over time as you accrete [add] duties to it), bravura, concatenation, doppleganger (there is an old movie with Don Knotts in it with doppleganger in the title - so I thank my Dad's quirky movie tastes for this one), hegemony and parity.

Mia said...

You have some smart siblings! I knew 5 off of your list and none on her list. I am a context reader. I learned early on to manage the meaning of the words I don't know from the rest of the sentence or paragraph. This is a time saver since I don't have a ton of leisure reading time. I also don't have a ton of time to look up words or a huge desire to look them up. My Dad was very into the word of the day calendars growing up and we would have to learn and use the word along with him. I have a pretty good reading vocabluary. I have spent way too much time on freerice.com and I have a decent sustainable vocabluary of around 40/41. But I almost never conversationaly or in my writing use the "big words". I think part of that reason is because I am such a context reader I don't want to risk being wrong about a word in conversation. I do want to improve my vocab though because I love words. Maybe I will ask for a word of the day calendar form my Dad for Christmas, he would be thrilled!

exLibris Lady said...

awesome job Kari! you are my own personal Ex Libris Lady, i love reading your blog. i have to know though, how on earth do you make your entries with the words wrapping around the pictures? and how do you put in links with different names, i can only put in the link, do you have a special upgraded blog?


Jenny said...

Wow - I would never guess this about you. I must say I look up to you as a literary pro. I think you speak eloquently. I have this same problem. I have one particular co-worker that always uses weird words. Many times after meetings I go look up a word he has said. My sister Cerissa and Mom also have great vocabularies - I may have them take a look at the list.

Like you I can glean the meaning from the use or context but may have never heard that word. I like to think that I am just more realistic - why do you need a fancy word when the everyday ones work just fine.

Many words I have heard before but didn't know there definition -
acolyte, bibliolatrus, captious, dactyl, hubristic, legatee, probity, spoor

I did know 3 - doppelganger, parity and umber

Geary said...


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