Use Your Words

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In any business, communication is important. In advertising and marketing, it’s essential. When it comes to professional development, we often focus on learning new software or mastering complex techniques. Forgotten are the building blocks themselves, which make everything else possible.

When it comes to our vocabulary, we are usually a product of whatever we did or didn’t manage to learn (or remember) from high school. You may have been taught that “pulchritudinous” means beautiful, but absent an SAT test or some real-world need to use it, you’ve probably long since forgotten it. When we’re in school, our vocabulary expands steadily to accommodate new subjects and ideas. But once we’re in the workforce, we seem to find fewer reasons to deploy those “fancy” words, and our daily vocabulary shrinks over time. This is natural but regrettable, for the more words we have to convey our thoughts and ideas, details and nuance, the better we can express ourselves and be understood by others.

There are plenty of ways to gradually add more words to your vocabulary without resorting to flash cards or other intensive study aids. One easy way is to read whatever you like. The more variety of content, fiction and nonfiction, the more words you’ll be exposed to. Instead of local news, you can try reading the New York Times or Wall Street Journal. You can also listen to podcasts, talk radio, audio-books or whatever interests you. The more you’re exposed to, the more you can learn. If nothing else, spend time with smart people who know things you don’t.

When you come upon an unfamiliar word, write it down. Look up the definition, and keep track of what you learn. You can use your phone or a small notepad, whatever is easy. Look for ways to use these new words in conversation or in your writing. There are also apps for your phone that will let you practice and learn new words. Pretty soon, you’ll start to notice how much larger the world of language is and how infinitely more precise and accurate you can be. It’s not about learning words that have five syllables or sounding like a pretentious snob when you speak. Rather, the goal is to have a wider range of tools at your disposal, so you can say exactly what you mean and communicate effectively with others.

Here are some of my favorite words that are less widely known but can be helpful in a wide variety of everyday situations. You could say someone forced you to help them move, but doesn’t it feel more accurate to say you were dragooned into helping them? Some words have a colorful history, like defenestrate, which arose from two historical events in Prague in which political figures were tossed from windows, starting wars. Other words uniquely capture the essence of something, like the way the earth smells after a rainstorm. A world rich in words and language is a higher resolution world.

Plus, used correctly, they make you sound smart:

anathema: someone or something that is very strongly disliked

quixotic: hopeful or romantic in a way that is not practical; unrealistically idealistic, derived from the Cervantes character Don Quixote. (Pronounced kwik-sahdik)

proclivity: an inclination or predisposition toward something; a tendency

ornery: bad-tempered and combative; stubborn

anodyne: adj. inoffensive; uncontroversial; n. painkilling drug or medicine

antithetical: directly opposed, mutually incompatible

bailiwick: sphere of operations or particular area of interest, activity or authority

concatenate: to connect or link in a series or chain

dearth: scarce supply or shortage (durth)

folderol: nonsense, foolishness (fahl-der-ahl)

halcyon: calm and peaceful; tranquil (hal-see-on)

pyrrhic: a victory that is won at too great of a cost (peer-ick)

befuddle: make unable to think clearly; confuse or bewilder

bereft: deprived of or lacking something, especially from a great loss or death

cahoots: (in cahoots) colluding or conspiring together secretly

chicanery: the use of trickery to achieve a purpose (usually financial, legal or political); deception

copious: abundant in supply or quantity

petrichor: the smell of earth after rain

quotidian: occurring every day; mundane

defenestrate: throw someone out of a window, or more informally, to remove or dismiss someone from a position of authority or power

dragoon: coerce or pressure someone into doing something

erstwhile: former, previously

feckless: weak, ineffective, lacking strength of character; irresponsible

incorrigible: not able to be corrected, improved or reformed; inveterate

mawkish: sickly sentimental, emotional or maudlin; overly sentimental

melange: mixture or medley of different things

smarmy: ingratiating, servile, flattering; suck-up

troglodyte: prehistoric cave-dweller; person of brutal character or dim intellect

desultory: aimless, meandering, without purpose or direction

antediluvian: extremely old and antiquated

autodidact: a self-taught person

cloying: excessively and unpleasantly sweet

poltroon: abject coward

prosaic: dull, commonplace

spurious: lacking evidence, false, inauthentic or untrue

harangue: to aggressively or critically lecture someone; long or intense verbal attack or speech

draconian: excessively harsh or severe, usually regarding laws or punishment