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300 Words to Success For Students and Young Professionals
[Note: I wrote this book in 2009. That year was one of my most productive literary years, seeing the appearance of four books--one on the biblical Book of Proverbs; one on education--It's All the Basics; one on Homer's Iliad and this book. I present Word Wealth here in its entirety. I hope you will be inspired to make the study and elegant use of the English language one of your goals in life. In the eleven years since writing this book, I have become more aware of and sympathetic to the challenges of people learning English to compete in the global economy or to succeed in their lives. This book is especially dedicated to you, who are making every effort to learn English well. May this book help and inspire you in your endeavors!]
Words are your verbal fashion or dress as you present yourself to the world. Just as hardly anyone leaves home for work without taking care of his or her appearance, so it doesn’t make sense for you to head to school or work without attention to the way you present yourself verbally. The Book of Proverbs says it well: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver,” (Proverbs 25:11). Having good words at the right time not only decorates or pleasantly adorns an encounter, but it also can raise, lower or precisely establish the emotional temperature of that encounter.
The purpose of this book is to help you speak and write better. It does so through introducing 300 or so words-- nouns, verbs and adjectives--that can profitably be used in personal, school and work communication. The words I have selected are “one step above” what are normally used in interpersonal communication yet are words that you probably recognize or have seen somewhere. You may have even said to yourself, “I should know that word.” But, like a person you pass daily and never ask or learn her name, so you often continue on your "verbal" way each day without stopping to inquire about a word. In this book we will stop and inquire about words.
The goal of this book is to bring these words from your recognition to your working vocabulary. Alternatively said, the goal is to help you dress yourself with words that complement your personal style, knowledge, skill and fashion sense so that you might present yourself as a complete and impressive package to the world.
If we look at words and our acquaintance with them, we can divide them into four categories: (1) unfamiliar, (2) recognized but unknown, (3) known but unused, and (4) regularly used in our communication. The goal of this book is to move words from the first three categories to the last one—used in our communication. Let me give you an example of the first three so that what I am doing is clear.
Four Categories Of Words
A word unfamiliar (Category (1)) to most people is lucullan. The Oxford English Dictionary (hereafter, OED) says it also can be written lucullean or lucullian, but it is derived from the name of name of L. Licinius Lucullus, a Roman famous for his wealth and the profuse luxury of his banquets. Any feast or party or celebration of impressive proportions can be called a “lucullan feast” or “lucullan banquet” or “lucullan delight.” F. Scott Fitzgerald, in describing Jay Gatsby’s great summer parties on Long Island in the 1920s, could have described them as lucullan feasts. The word is available to us today. We could even use understatement and be gently humorous: “The meal was not quite lucullan fare.”
But that is an obscure word, even though you can’t claim you don’t know it now. Let’s take a few Category 2 words: mawkish or bumptious. You probably have seen the words, but you aren’t quite sure what they mean. You can’t see the direct relevance between knowing the word and improving your life, but you think it might be good to know them. Let’s just look at one. Mawkish is derived from the Northern English/Scottish word mawk, which is a maggot. Mawkish originally picked up on this meaning and meant something that was loathsome or sickening. But as time went on, it took on a slightly less offensive meaning, and grew to signify something insipid, dull or sickly. Its most frequent use in English is in the phrase “mawkish sentimentality.” One might also have “mawkish tales” or “mawkish bromides” or “mawkish presentations.”
Then there are many words in Category 3--words that you recognize and can define but you don’t often use in your written or oral communication. A good example of this might be the verb beguile. I will have something to say about this word in a few chapters, but suffice it to say for now that its most popular current meaning is to charm or amuse, though it also means to deceive or cheat. “She beguiled me for hours with tales of the old country.” You can see how the word could add some strength, suppleness and discrimination to your communication.
Finally, in Category 4, there are the standard words of our communication, so plentiful and familiar that they need no examples. We are so fluent in using these familiar words that we delude ourselves into thinking that since we know them, the familiar words, we are fluent in English. Actually, we aren’t. We can make our way in the world in English, but we leave about 90% of our language to the side. It is as if we are living on a great gold mine and only willing to use about 10% of the proceeds of the mine. Or, to change the analogy, it is as if we are equipped with two spanking new oxygen tanks, filled to the brim with purest air, to go deep-sea diving, but they are 90% occluded. Air still gets through, and we can adequately breathe, but we really can’t fully enjoy our explorations.
This is the way it is with words. They are out there, and many, many of them will help you in learning how to express yourself in such a precise and attractive fashion that others will not only notice you but turn their heads to listen to what you have to say. I propose here to give you words that will make that happen.
A Brief Story
Some might object: “I have enough words to get me through life. Why take the effort when I can already say and write what I want?” The objection is reminiscent of an objection I raised to my son several years ago when he was a distance runner in high school.
“Which events do you want to run?” I inquired.
“The 800 meters and the mile,” was his response.
“What is your training regimen?” I continued.
“We run about five miles a day, then finish with some sprints, either 100 or 200 meters. Sometimes we have longer runs; sometimes we just try to do the best time we can for the 800 or mile,” he said.
I looked at him, “Why, if all you really need to run is 1/2 mile to a mile, do you waste your time running five miles? Why don’t you just run a mile and then quit? What are you trying to do?” Of course, I knew the answer to the question, but I wanted to see what he would say.
He looked at me quizzically, as if I was a bit dim-witted. “Dad,” he responded, “If you don’t run many more miles than you need, you might not have the energy and kick to finish the race in top form.”
I knew he was right. It is the same reasoning that every coach or every teacher of music or ballet or any discipline that a person undertakes to improve him/herself uses. Lawyers who argue before appellate courts often practice their oral arguments before panels of other lawyers and judges so that every possible objection can be voiced and answered before the “big show.” You “over-prepare” so that you are fully prepared when you are asked to perform. When you perform, you do so as if it is effortless. Only you know the care and discipline that went into it.
So it is with words and their use. You “over-prepare” by learning new words and bringing them and familiar words into your reading and working vocabulary. It isn’t easy, but it is so rewarding. And, even if you never compete for the Nobel prize in literature, the discipline you undertook in learning the words and making them your own will benefit you for life.
About This Book
This book consists of three parts. I focus in the first on useful verbs, the second on adjectives, and the third on nouns. I aim for words that you probably either recognize but don’t know or that you know but do not use very often. My goal is to show a word in its full dress—that is, provide something of its evolution and history, its meaning, and a few examples of how it can be used. Often I will treat a series of verbs or nouns together based on their interrelationships. For example, I will look at the verbs aver and avow in the same breath. Sometimes I will group words together based on their prefix or beginning, such as many words starting with “be” (benumb, bedeck, begrime, beribbon, bemuse, etc.). At times I will introduce the historical significance of some words even if they can be used today without detailed understanding of that history. For example, I will tell the story of words such as leviathan, fascism, Gnosticism, and glasnost.
In addition, I will provide quotations both from noteworthy as well as obscure authors that show the words at work. Thus, it is my desire that you will also learn a little about Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, Annie Dillard, Edgar Allen Poe and others in this book. I will even quote the Wizard of Oz. I introduce these people and works not to give you names to drop at parties but to show you that significant figures from the past and present have given attention to the right choice of words, and we remember them for it.
I do not believe that words have to be multi-syllabic to be powerful or helpful. For example, I will devote a chapter to single-syllable verbs, such as rive, dote, mulct, ruck, purl and parse. In each chapter, however, I have selected words that should help give you confidence to express yourself with greater clarity and vividness. I believe that the popular expression, “A picture is worth 1000 words,” while often having truth to it, is overused. I am seeking those words that are worth 1000 pictures; words that bring alive what you are thinking, words that do so with zest, accuracy, clarity and humor so that you can be as confident in your oral and written communication as you are in your dress or interpersonal skills.
Using This Book
My suggestion is that you don’t try to “speed-read” this book. Rather, reading a chapter a day will probably be enough. Make notes on words you would like to incorporate into your speaking and writing vocabularies. Study the way I use them. Look them up in a dictionary. Do Internet searches on them to see in what combinations they normally appear. Then, as you speak or write, try to use them. Building your working vocabulary is a slow and conscious process.
It would also be great if you had either a study partner or someone who is aware of your intent to try to use new words so that s/he can calibrate the success you experience in introducing them. As with any new device or toy, however, you may have to experiment for a while until you discover which words “fit” you best as you present yourself to the world. While anathematize might not fit either your personality or your verbal style, you may find a home using phrases like winkle one’s way or insinuate oneself or ingratiate oneself into the affection of another. It takes a little effort, but the results will be impressive. You can bank on it.