A lot of words cannot be fully explained by the dictionary alone. They have a subtle hidden meaning that can’t adequately be described, it is only through hearing the word being used regularly that we grasp their full meaning. Or they have more than one meaning and the context is everything. This is one of the reasons why learning another language can be so difficult, and it’s also why translations are often so funny – a literal meaning of the word is used without an understanding of the more subtle sub-meaning, or alternative meaning. Some of you may remember these mistranslations I posted a while ago. Many of them (though not all by any means) would actually stand up to a dictionary definition, but a greater knowledge of the meaning is needed to see why they are funny.
All of this is why I am sometimes reluctant to incorporate new words into my vocabulary until I’m confident I understand their full meaning, not just the dictionary definition. We all occasionally hear words that we feel drawn to – either we like the sound of the word itself (Like “serendipity” or “discombobulated”), or we look up the definition of a word and feel that we like the meaning and can see uses for the word in our vocabulary. They’re not necessarily completely new words to us, they may well have blipped across our radar many times, but didn’t register before. I like to put those words into a vocabulary holding zone; I think I’ve understood them but I can’t be totally sure until I hear them used several more times. Once I’m happy, then they can graduate into my general vocabulary zone. Once in the general vocabulary zone then I have to make a conscious effort to use them a few times quite soon to make sure they are properly glued into that zone, otherwise they will slip out, and goodness knows where they end up after that.
1) Some of my recent graduates from the holding zone into the general vocabulary zone, with dictionary definitions, are:
Gravitas – seriousness, solemnity, or importance (Gravitas spent a few years in the holding zone – I’d understood what it meant for a long time and yet hadn’t had the confidence to use it for some reason, so it had to keep repeating a year before it was able to graduate. I think that says a lot about the word itself – gravitas is a word with gravitas! Those who are familiar with it will know that it has more to it than the definition alone).
Rhetoric – the art of using speech to persuade, influence, or please (It has other definitions too, but this is the one I’ve picked. Again, it’s a word that has been around me for a number of years because I work in a university and it’s a very university word, but it’s only since I went back to studying several months back that I’ve been able to incorporate it myself.)
Disaggregate – to separate from a group or mass (this one didn’t need long in the holding zone).
Polemic – of or involving dispute or controversy (not quite as straightforward as it sounds).
2) Words currently in my holding zone, with dictionary definitions, are:
Nomenclature – the terminology used in a particular science, art, activity, etc (I think I’m happy with the meaning of this word, it’s more a crisis of pronunciation with this one, I can’t say it fluently yet).
Zeitgeist – the spirit, attitude, or general outlook of a specific time or period, esp as it is reflected in literature, philosophy, etc (I love this word, I might give it some extra special attention so that it can graduate quickly, but ssshhh, don’t tell the other words).
Hermeneutic – of or relating to the interpretation of Scripture (I can’t see that I’ll have much opportunity to use this word, but it’s just a very satisfying word to say out loud. Try it, all together now – “Hermeneutic!” See?).
Reification – the act or an instance of making an abstract idea or concept real or concrete (this is a very new entry into the holding zone, wish it luck).
I can date the development of my vocabulary holding zone concept to my late teens when I had just started working. I had never understood what “cynical” meant, but knew I wanted to use it, so I looked it up in the dictionary and thought I understood it. In order to impress one of the bosses at my work with my wide vocabulary, I threw it into a sentence, like “He’s being rather cynical isn’t he!”. To which he replied “Well I wouldn’t exactly call that cynical”. Drats. And thus the holding zone was born.
Do you like to incorporate new words into your vocabulary? If so, do you have a holding zone for them, or do you just throw caution to the wind and start using them right away? Any recent additions to your vocabulary you’d like to share?