I pay attention to words, but I haven’t always. While my literary friends were tossing around vocabulary in high school, I was tossing around baseballs, footballs, and hockey pucks. My time would have been better invested in reading and writing, but what do kids know?

We learn many words in our day to day lives. Media mostly but also interacting with people. Or we used to, back when people used larger vocabularies. I cannot remember the last time I learned a new word from a person, or from television, or radio. I now learn my words from reading and studying.

Yes, I study words. It is not easy learning something you know nothing about. Yeah, we’ll just plunge into this forest and find our way through. Nope. To study words, chance does play a part. Read Mordecai Richler or John Cheever, and I can almost guarantee you’ll learn a new word.  Cheever throws words that don’t seem to belong, at least he did in his first story, Goodbye, My Brother: That beach is a vast and preternaturally clean and simple landscape. I have seen preternaturally before, but I couldn’t define it. I was not sure what the sentence meant. So, as a lover of words, I looked it up.

Definition of preternatural
1 : existing outside of nature
2 : exceeding what is natural or regular : extraordinary
wits trained to preternatural acuteness by the debates—G. L. Dickinson
3 : inexplicable by ordinary means; especially : psychic
preternatural phenomena

I take Cheever’s intention to be exceeding what is natural, as in no ordinary beach is as vast and clean, no driftwood, no people, no garbage, now beach paraphernalia. The trouble with harvesting words from other sources like reading and television is you will never build your vocabulary unless you read vast amounts. I am lucky if I learn a new word in a story, and those stupid Facebook tests all say I know some 40,000 words. Sounds like a lot, but is it? Estimates are as high as 300,000 distinct English words. Sources say that fiction readers know more words than non-fiction readers – yeah! – but it is still too slow.

My primary means of study in at Vocabulary.com.  Great, you might think. Just run through the tests and learn. That’s the theory. Inculcate yourself with various forms of questions, make your mind sort through meanings and possibilities, even force yourself to investigate further. I always have a dictionary handy, and I often search for new words in media. If I can read them in a real story, I have a much better chance of remembering them. At my age, my brain’s first order of business is forgetting, not remembering. Half the words I’ve learned — I have about 1.5 million points there — have drifted away.

Preternaturally won’t. I can almost guarantee that. There’s no better way to learn a word than to write about it. The same with inculcate. You can look that one up yourself, but recently learned it.I wrote a poem this morning called Learning New Words. I wanted to use this word, but I couldn’t remember what it was. I did write its meaning in my notebook, but I failed to write the word. Another sign of a slipping mind. But now that I’ve used it in a poem and a blog, I’ll not likely ever lose it. Enjoy!

Learning New Words

You cannot learn a new word by rote.
If all you had to do was inculcate,
an auto-play dictionary is all you’d need.
Your vocabulary would grow at incredible speed.

You need to live a word to understand it,
or you’ll end up a master of sublimate.
New words are fresh paint too easy to abrade.
You need to work them, feel them, tie them in a braid.