Vocabulary is either critical or a waste of time, depending on who you listen to. Here at Brainscape, we think vocabulary is important, and so today we’re doing our best to convince you that it’s true. Without further ado, here are our top 5 reasons to study vocabulary.
1. Look Smart (and Forestall Embarrassment)
In the course of your lifetime, you’re bound to run into countless advanced, difficult, or esoteric words. They may come up in a job interview, in an academic setting like a test or homework, at work among colleagues or business partners, or just in a casual conversation.
In these situations, none of us want to look stupid, and that might be the best argument for studying vocabulary. Whatever the situation, being able to critically evaluate, understand, and respond to complex and difficult words is a big asset — and a great reason to study up now.
2. Understand The Lexicon of History
Any language changes over time.
Consider the English language: it’s spoken, to a greater or lesser degree, by more than 1.5 billion people worldwide and is considered to include more than 1 million words — perhaps many more. A 2010 study estimated that the number of English words grows by some 8,500 per year (depending on how this is calculated).
With that sort of linguistic spread, it’s inevitable that meaning changes a great deal over time. Learning vocabulary — and perhaps dabbling in a bit of etymology as well — can help you make sense of history.
You don’t have to go very far back, even: many books written in the 1950s and 60s take for granted a broad vernacular, much of which sounds alien to our ears. Perhaps this is a reflection of the fact that a generation ago, the study of classical literature was a must for any educated person. Today, this type of classical education is largely reserved for literature students.
3. Read The Classics
Pick up Shakespeare, Socrates, or any classic literature. What you will find is a language expressed very differently from ours. More specifically, you will find countless words that have fallen out of common usage in the modern world.
In Shakespeare, for example, wild hawks are haggards, hemlock is referred to as kecksy, and a theory is a theorick. There are whole dictionaries simply devoted to unlocking the vernacular of late 16th- and early 17th-century England that is used by Shakespeare.
If you want to read history or classical literature, and to understand it, you must make a study of vocabulary. And if you’re worried about an upcoming test like the SAT, GRE, or LSAT, studying the vocabulary of the classics is a great way to boost your scores: advanced and uncommon words used in classical literature are quite common on these tests.
4. Unlock The Roots of Meaning
One great reason to study vocabulary is to understand the roots from which meaning is built. Once you understand the building blocks of language, vocabulary becomes easier to understand.
Consider a beautiful word I learned recently: distributary. Like its sister word, tributary, the term refers to rivers and streams. However, tributary refers to a portion of the river or stream that flows into a larger body of water, like a larger river or lake, before reaching the ocean. A distributary is the opposite: a stream or river that diverges from the main river or stream as it nears the ocean, lake, or larger river, and which drains directly into said larger body of water.
This is the power of vocabulary: instead of an unwieldy sentence, we can use a simple, single term that conveys meaning. The term distributary is particularly elegant in that it builds on a commonly understood term (tributary), using a commonly understood prefix (dis- or distribute). The meaning is coded into the word itself.
5. Widen Your Mental Horizons
The language we can use determines what we can think about.
That’s a big claim, but it’s true: the words, phrases, and ideas that we have at our fingertips define the boundaries of our expression. This is then reflected back on our thinking: if we can’t express something, it’s very hard to conceive of it in the first place.
This intersection of language and culture is what worries many cultural anthropologists concerned about indigenous languages, which are going extinct rapidly around the world. Each of these languages, they say, is an expression of the place where it came about: the result of long interaction between people, landscape, weather, animals, and other features of a given community.
Let’s look at one example. In the Hawaiian language, two fascinating terms — wao akua and we kanaka — define the boundaries of community. Roughly translated, woa kanaka means “realm of humans.” Wao aka literally means “realm of the gods,” but carries much more meaning. It defines a location to which humans travel or use only rarely and with a clear purpose, and where they don’t long linger once their purpose is done. Linguistically, the term is interwoven with Hawaiian religious and spiritual beliefs, land-use practices, and more.
How to Study Vocabulary
Learning vocabulary, like learning another language, can literally open our minds to new ideas, new ways of thinking, and entirely new conceptions of the world. One of the best ways to learn vocabulary is with our digital flashcards, which are curated by experts and are proven to help you learn new words. Check out Brainscape’s Vocabulary flashcards and get started.
Vocabulary in This Article
- Ado: noun. bustle, fuss, trouble, bother.
- Etymology: noun. The origin and historical development of a linguistic form as shown by determining its basic elements, earliest known use, and changes in form and meaning, tracing its transmission from one language to another, identifying its cognates in other languages, and reconstructing its ancestral form where possible.
- Esoteric: adjective. Of or relating to that which is known by a restricted number of people.
- Fetters: noun. Bindings, bondage.
- Forestall: noun. To delay, hinder, or prevent by taking precautionary measures beforehand.
- Lexicon: noun. A stock of terms used in a particular profession, subject, or style; a vocabulary.
- Vernacular: noun. The everyday language spoken by a people.
(Definitions from the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition.)
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