How to remember vocabulary for the rest of your life

The French Canadian coast of Clare in Nova Scotia. 2009, photo by cbs

The French Canadian coast of Clare in Nova Scotia. 2009

by cheri sabraw

Have you ever discovered that you have been using a vocabulary word incorrectly? For example, do you think the word non-plused means unimpressed? Or what about the word diffident? Do you think it means aloof?

Non-plused does not mean unimpressed; rather, it means “to render utterly perplexed; to puzzle completely.” *

Diffident does not mean aloof; rather it means, “lacking confidence in one’s own ability…timid, shy.”

Part of the problem is the remembering. When did you learn the meaning of a word? In what context? Most importantly, how did you encode the word into your memory? The way you remember new vocabulary is the key to a lifetime of accurate word recognition.

If there is one thing I know it is this: every student I have ever taught throughout the course of forty years knows what the word ubiquitous means. They all remember. When they hear the word ubiquitous, they think of me, of their junior year in high school, of that Bic pen with the u-shaped eraser, held by hands of stick figures drawn on a globe– all in a picture I drew on my well-worn chalk board. They will remember that ubiquitous means seemingly everywhere at the same time, as Bic pens are.

Deauville and Trouville, France, 2010. photo by cbs

Deauville and Trouville, France, 2010.

When they hear the word salient, most will remember the sailboat, with its angular sail jutting out, drawn on that same dusty chalkboard. They will remember that the salient point is the one that is most important.

In that same lesson I taught on memory by association or how to remember vocabulary for the rest of your life, they will recall the word capricious and see a stick-figure drinking a Capri Sun, then a Coke, then a Capri Sun, and then a Coke. My does he change his mind frequently! They will remember that capricious means fickle.

Athens, Greece, 2011. photo by cbs

Athens, Greece, 2011.

To this day, I train myself to remember vocabulary in the same manner.

For example, here is a sample of my running vocabulary list this week (with thanks to Vladimir Nabokov in his autobiography Speak, Memory).

You will see the word, its definition, and the way I will remember it:

1. palimpsest (n.)– a manuscript in which writing and pictures have been erased to make room for more writing. An overlay, almost a collage, like a limp piece of erased parchment.

2. palpebral (adj.) – having to do with the eyelids. In my wearinessI will palpate my eyelids.

3. photism (n.)-a hallucinatory sensation or a vision of light. When I had pho noodles at the Vietnamese restaurant, each bright noodle looked like a beam of light.

4. hypnagogic (adj.)– “of or pertaining to drowsiness.” Upon my hypnosis, I fell fast asleep.

Then, I might try putting four or five words into a silly sentence because humor can help us remember things.

On a dark and stormy night, I tried to close my eyes but a photism appeared on my wall, very close to a photo I have of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, one of the most famous writers of magical realism. That beam of light and its intensity stimulated my hypnagogic state of mind  like a cattle-prod. I leaped from my bed, taking my fists and rubbing each eye like a startled child. My palpebral attempts to come to terms with the other-worldly beam of light were stymied by my sense of rationale and the ticking of my alarm clock. And then I saw IT on the floor, next to my Peet’s Coffee mug and the Harvard Business Review–a palimpsest. Where is Harrison Ford when you need him?


*All definitions in quotation marks taken from


About Cheri

Writer, artist, cable television host, grandmother to four!
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31 Responses to How to remember vocabulary for the rest of your life

  1. Cyberquill says:

    Last I heard, Harrison Ford was laid up with a fractured astrologer. I mean asparagus. Something like that.

  2. Richard says:

    “At last,” I thought, “Cheri has given me the cure for a lifetime of malapropism.”

    Then the truth struck home. She, her Bic pen, her well-worn, dusty chalkboard and her memorable photographs will not be there when needed to provide the required associations.

    I shall just have to remain in blissful ignominy.

  3. Christopher says:

    In the context of ethnomethodology, one should use only the words that one senses one’s interlocutors will understand. Indeed, to engage unnecessarily in sesquipedalianism or lexiphania, or to use inkhornisms supererogatorily, or otherwise to speak in a doctiloquent manner, draws attention to the speaker, who, by speaking thus, may be masking an innate kakorrhaphiophobia.

    Quite apart from this, it’s so easy to fall into the trap of catachresis, dysphemism, and flexiloquentness, unless one knows exactly what one is talking about. Epeolatry does, after all, have its pitfalls.

    However, even in an egalitarian society, deipnosophy does have its place, as long as one chooses one’s target audience most carefully.

    • Richard says:

      Yes, Christopher, this is quite remarkable in any number of ways. How you knew of the words in the first place is a complete mystery to me. I checked them all and found that you had used them all in perfect context. Not only that, you brought them together so that they blended attractively and carried the precise meaning you wanted to convey: the comment was a good read though it required a lot of work on my part. There were eleven words I had never heard of before, and three I had come across but, to my shame, had only a vague, even wrong, understanding of.

      Even now, I can’t remember the meaning of the eleven and have only a vague idea of the three, so how you are able to hold them in your head and write meaningfully with them, I just do not know.

      • Ladybugg says:

        Just use memory by association! Would you kindly translate Christopher’s paragraph since you are the first ready student to complete your homework? Or, like other bright students, do you want the rest of us to figure it out ourselves?

        • Richard says:

          How could I not respond to such flattery (I am not that bright – I didn’t know any of your words either, Miss)

          1 ethnomethodology
          the sociological study of the rules and rituals underlying ordinary social activities and interactions.
          2 Interlocutor
          1.a person who takes part in a conversation or dialogue.
          2.the man in the middle of the line of performers in a minstreltroupe, who acts as the announcer and banters with the endmen.
          3.a person who questions; interrogator.
          given to using long words.
          4 lexiphania
          Using, or interlarded with, pretentious words; bombastic.
          5 inkhornism
          6 supererogatorily
          1.going beyond the requirements of duty.
          2.greater than that required or needed; superfluous.
          7 doctiloquent
          Talking about a subject which you have studied and know a lot about
          8 kakorrhaphiophobia
          the fear of failure or defeat
          9 catachresis
          1. The misapplication of a word or phrase, as the use of blatant to mean “flagrant.”
          2. The use of a strained figure of speech, such as a mixed metaphor.
          10 dysphemism
          1. the substitution of a harsh, disparaging, or unpleasant expression for a more neutral one.
          2. an expression so substituted.
          11 flexiloquentness
          Speaking doubtfully or doubly.
          12 epeolatry
          The worship of words.
          13 deipnosophy
          a person who is an adept conversationalist at table.
          14 egalitarian

          • Christopher says:

            I neglected to add in my earlier comment that I see no compelling reason why the above words shouldn’t come as trippingly off the tongues of Anglophones everywhere, as do the quotidian four-letter expletives.

            Should this happen, think how more pleasant rides in buses and trains, and evenings in sports-bars, would be.

  4. Ladybugg says:

    I thought Peter was funny until I read this paragraph. Will you provide a translation for those of us who are sure we will never use one of these words?

  5. shoreacres says:

    My goodness. I was just going to leave a pedestrian little comment, but I think I’d better get out of the way, lest I be run down by linguists run amok!

    I was going to note that, much as I like your system, I’ve been greatly aided by the two years of Latin that were required of us in 8th and 9th grade. ALL of us, mind you. This was a very, very long time ago, back in the days when it was common to memorize poetry, and calculators and teh interwebz hadn’t been invented.

    I did just sort out “farther” and “further” last week. I think it may stick this time, since I read that a good way to remember the difference is to note that “far” (i.e., distance) is part of “farther.”

    • Ladybugg says:

      Oh yes. Latin trumps this little system. Every student I instructed who had studied Latin had three times the vocabulary than other students’ vocabularies.

      Funny you would refer to “further” and “farther,” surely a pair of words that has stymied me over the years. I like the “far” in farther. Very nice and it fits into Memory by Association perfectly. I have odd/cute/clever ways to remember most of these difficult pairs such as complement/compliment, capitol/capital, a number/the number, convince/persuade, and so on. My grammar skills intensified when I free-lanced for Grammar Girl on her web page called Quick and Dirty Tips. All answers aardvark wrote are mine. I did this during menopause (which explains why I would sit up at 3:00 am, answering grammar questions for free.) Ha! In truth, Mignon Fogerty (Grammar Girl) appreciated the work, which was all I needed at that time.

      • Christopher says:

        “…….Every student I instructed who had studied Latin had three times the vocabulary than other students’ vocabularies……..”

        I was surprised to read this, for, having myself had Latin forced down my throat over three years in senior (high) school, I added, as a result, just two English words to my everyday vocabulary: “puerile” from the Latin “puer” (a boy); and “impecunious” from the Latin “pecunia” (money).

        I therefore consider learning Latin a waste of time for any aspiring epeolatrist, who would be better served by learning a living Romance language, like Spanish or French.

        Knowing some French, I read, as preparation for this comment, three newspaper articles that I chose at random from the website of the newspaper “Le Point”.

        The three articles included: (French word, then nearest sounding English word)

        affrontment (affront)
        mort (mortal)
        diffusées (diffuse)
        affirmé (affirm)
        évoquait (evoke)
        perpétré (perpetrate)
        exorciser (exorcise)
        catharsis (catharsis)
        insouciance (insouciance)
        bucolique (bucolic)
        occidentaux (occidental)
        euphémisme (euphemism)
        douloureux (dolorous)
        incorrigible (incorrigible)
        façade (facade)
        colère (choleric)
        caprice (caprice)

        Many of these English words, while not arcane, would arguably cause the average slack-jawed high school student confronted with them, to have to dig out his dictionary. But if he knew French, all these English words would be part of his normal vocabulary.

        I’ll guess Spanish would have a similar vocabulary-building effect. However, you’ll know more about this than do I.

        • Ladybugg says:

          OMG. I don’t know how to answer you other than say, “I’m not worthy, I’m not worthy!!”
          Let’s see, Spanish..

          Gusto: gusto
          Puerco: pig
          Perro: dog
          Quien: who
          Donde: where
          Cuantos: how much

          so far, I don’t see any advantage.

  6. christina ma says:

    Hi, Mrs. Sabraw! I chuckled as I read this post, especially when I saw ubiquitous because the memory of you drawing that Bic pen on the board at Mill Creek still stands out in my mind to this day! Hope you are well. =) –Christina Ma

  7. Ladybugg says:

    So great to hear from one of my favorite and devoted students! I hope all is well!

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