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.
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.
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 weariness, I 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 Dictionary.com