The Vocabulary Holding Zone


Drawing of Vanessa looking in a dictionary

My wonderful blogging/doodling/author friend, Mike Allegra, drew this picture of me specifically for this post. Do you think he’s captured my likeness?

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:

Gravitasseriousness, 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).

Rhetoricthe 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).

Polemicof or involving dispute or controversy (not quite as straightforward as it sounds).

2) Words currently in my holding zone, with dictionary definitions, are:

Nomenclaturethe 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).

Hermeneuticof 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?).

Reificationthe 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?

Picture credits:
Doodle of Vanessa by Mike Allegra
Dictionary photo credit: jovike via photopin cc


68 responses to “The Vocabulary Holding Zone

  1. NotAPunkRocker

    This has me thinking. A lot of my friends have “word of the day” calendars, I think there’s even an app. 🙂 Maybe I will try to expand my horizons.


  2. You could practice most of your new words by incorporating them into a comment in this past post of mine.


  3. Love this, as the ‘English’ person in the house, ie: the one with the best vocabulary and knows the meanings of the most words. My boys will often use a big or new word and then look at me and ask if they’ve used it properly, even hubby does sometimes. Only a small percentage of the time is it ever wrong, so they have their own solid grasp on the language. The eldest is getting the grasp on the fact that the dictionary and the other meanings make it hard to define a word as well. I’ve not used the term, but I spose I have my own holding zone of sorts. Have no IDE if there are any words in the here’re at the moment though…


  4. That’s a great illustration! What an honor! (Or, if you must, honour.)

    Don’t forget about cross-cultural differences. Pay a visit to NYC and ask for a “fag” and see what you get.

    I’m a big fan of “superfluous” but don’t get to use it very often.


    • Yes, I love Mike’s drawings, they have a lot of personality don’t they. A while ago on facebook he provided a quote from somewhere and said that the first person who could identify it would win a doodle of their choice, and I won! Hurrah! So I told him briefly about my idea for this post and asked for an illustration for it, and voila!

      I think we’re quite familiar with a lot of the American vocabulary over here because of all your shows on our screens! But yes, the cross-cultural differences are intersting indeed.

      You’re right, superfluous IS a good word, it kind of slides around your mouth and off the end of your tongue!


  5. Vanessa I am afraid I have a very short or non existent holding zone. Reflecting back I’m sure readers have rolled their eyeballs and cringed at the words appearing as though they parachuted in from some inappropriate land.I shall take a page from your book. 🙂


  6. “Posit” is one of those words for me. It means “to lay down or assume as a fact or principle; postulate” and I first ran across it in college
    mostly in philosophical or other theoretical-type material. “Deposit” – everybody knows that word, but “posit” eluded me and I did want to use it. I’m sure I misused it a few times, but I think I’ve figured it out. I think. Actually, a lot of philosophical terms elude me.
    Love the drawing, by the way!


  7. There is another part of the vocabulary holding zone you need to consider: “What types of people regularly use this word?”

    For example, people who often say “zeitgeist” are often, self-important windbags. People who often say “gravitas” think highly of Dick Cheney.


  8. I love the idea of a vocabulary-holding-zone (with extra U letters – which I will donate to you when I play Scrabble and have a whole slew of them – but alas, only one “Q”). I am famous for mis-word-use…and I love it when my son is working on a new word that isn’t quite ready to be released but he tries it with zeal! And when it’s from a kid, it’s cute – as opposed to an adult, and then it’s just rather awkward.

    I need it for atavistic – of, pertaining to, or characterized by atavism; reverting to or suggesting the characteristics of a remote ancestor or primitive type.

    I understand it when I read it, but I can never fathom how to actually use it.

    There’s also a psychology German type word (but not Zeitgeist) that I cannot right now remember – but I never quite understand how to use it.


    • Atavistic/atavism is a new one one me, I can see how it would be a tricky one to bring into circulation.

      Word misuse can be funny can’t it, we can all do it, sometimes we’ve been using a word wrong our whole lives without realising it until some kind soul points it out, and then we feel embarrassed thinking about all the times we may have misused it in the past and wondered whether people were laughing at me…er, I mean us, you know…I imagine that kind of thing might happen to other people, not me, just other people.


  9. I’ve been known to toss a few Frasier-Crane type words out from time to time, for which my sons abuse me, but I blame my verbosity on my training. Those medical words pop out when you least expect it, words like “uvula,” for example. Or borborygmus. Or “eosinophil.” But I think it will be a very, very long time before I’d ever use the word “Zeitgeist.” You’ve impressed me with that one. May that Z word fly freely from your mouth this summer!


  10. I’m dying to use the word defenestrate, but, after a glance at the dictionary, it will be obvious why it’s use is so rare.

    I could give you help with some of the pronunciation, but then you’d have one word of an American accent. Having learned my Greek letters from a native Chinese speaker (it was a college statistics class), I sounded odd in my grad school stats classes.


    • I did have to look that up – that’s hilarious that there should be a word for that! I guess it might be derived from the French word for window – fenêtre. I’m interested to hear you speak with all that mixed in!


      • French, too? I had it linked to the German word: fenster.

        Regarding French, I was an adult before I realized that “hors’d’oevre” was the same thing as that never-spelled word for appetizer-sized portions. I ha two words for the same thing, one only spelled and one only spoken.


  11. Try looking up Defenestration of Prague in Wikipedia – actual historical event


  12. This is great…love the holding theory! While I’m not as conscious of it as you might be, I do the same thing. When a word comes up on my Kindle that I am pretty sure I know, but am not positive, I will press the word so I can see the definition. Usually I DO know the word, but I don’t comfortably know it, if you will. And then sometimes, I’m just shocked because it means something totally different than what I thought.


  13. Vanessa, this is inspiring. I want to have a holding zone now. I like the zeitgeist word. Otherwise, I’m afraid I don’t have a list at the moment. Sometimes I come across a word when I read and I make a mental note about it, either how it is used or to look it up. Alas, it is swiftly forgotten. I thought about doing posts on words I come across that I like. Recently that word was “maelstrom.” I thought I like that word and it has stayed with me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I think sometimes you have to hear it a few times, or make a point to write it down in order for it not to be swiftly forgotten. Maelstrom is good word, it sounds rich and caramely! I seem to think I’ve heard that recently on the news or somewhere like that.


  14. I’m with heylook…etc. While it’s something we’re encouraged to do as children, using new words in a sentence can come across as pretentious. They definitely need a holding zone, at least until you learn to pronounce them. Nothing makes me groan more than hearing someone use a mangled word.
    But you know those words you need to use before they drop out? I know where they go. They are having parties with the lost socks in the dryer.


  15. I have a notebook somewhere with a mess of words I collected and looked up while struggling through “A supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,’ by David Foster Wallace. Can’t put my hands on it just now and remember none of them.
    My favorite word is bibliobibuli, which one dictionary explained as a book worm and another as someone drunk on reading.
    Isn’t this cool?
    Fabulous post, Vanessa. I must borrow some of your banked words.


  16. Similarly tricky is attempting to impress people of non-English speaking background with words or phrases from their own language, especially in the days of Google Translate! Way too easy to come across sleazy or downright dumb! Although, I have to say, we’re lucky these days – we have the urban dictionary 🙂


  17. I like the concept of the holding zone. It makes me think of airplanes lined up on the runway, waiting for take-off. That drawing is great, too.


  18. I like the idea of a “holding zone” for new vocabulary. Especially since many folks (including myself) tend to drop “hot” words into dialogue or papers, whether they’re necessary or not. I’m certain you’ve come across certain words favored throughout academia. Zeitgeist is one of those, as is polemic. My favorite hated word is paradigm, which was all the rage to use when I was an undergrad.

    One of our more impish students once programmed the printers on campus to find -and delete- a list of overused academic words from documents in the printer queue. It was a very clever April Fool’s prank…until people started trying to reprint in droves, driving up the page count numbers all across campus. Definitely, a waste of ink, paper, and electric. Though, we still chuckle about it to this day.

    Don’t keep your nose in that book too long, Vanessa! We’ll miss that bright smile!


    • Yes, I think a few of my words up there have come to me through academia. Paradigm was all the rage here a few years ago too I think, it seems like a word that I used to hear a fair bit but only very occasionally now.

      That is a funny and clever prank, but yes, the wastage! I bet some people took the prank well and others were furious!

      I’m still smiling behind the book 🙂


  19. Your friend the artist, he’s a real keeper. I used to love the Atlantic Monthly’s last page of words newly incorporated into the dictionary. The articles were too long but that was cool. I love this post. My word/phrase is mutually exclusive. Does it mean the concepts can coexist or cannot? Every time I look it up I think OK. And then I forget again.
    Much Love to your dear one,


    • Yes, he’s great, he got a children’s book about Thanksgiving published with is really good too. Mutually exclusive, yes, I think that’s one where when I hear it used I understand but I don’t necessarily use it myself – I think it means they cannot, but because it’s usually paired with “not”, like “these two things are not mutually exclusive” then it changes the meaning to can, and thus the confusion!


  20. Oh, yes! I think Mike has rendered you perfectly. 😀

    I could never be so organized about this process. But I try not to throw caution to the wind completely, or else I will use words like “render” too freely and make bacon fat of myself. So perhaps I should adopt a word rendering program…oh, dear…sizzle sizzle


    • Mike’s so clever with his drawings isn’t he, like even though you can only see the top of my head and my fingers, you can still get the sense of a personality coming through!

      I don’t think I was really aware of having this organised process for words until I started writing this post, which started out just to be about the hidden, or more subtle, meaning of words, and then realised I had this process and so the slant of the post ended up being more about the holding zone.


      • Yes, his style is distinctive and highly insightful. 😀

        Personally, I like that fact that you allowed the muse to lead you astray. This is far more interesting because you touched on your own human foible rather than turning it into a very general post of the subtle meanings of words.


  21. The things you get me thinking about! I love seeing what you’ll post about next because I know it will be entertaining, fun, education, intriguing—and never polemic. I wish I could have thought of a way to work more of your new words into that sentence. 😉

    I think I keep new words in a holding queue like you do, waiting until I’m comfortable with them so that they’ll sound natural. Recently, though, I surprised myself by using “Dude” with a younger colleague. It’s not a word I use often because its current form really belongs to a younger generation. You could see the surprise in her eyes when she heard it from me!


    • Thank you, that’s nice to hear!

      I’m interested to see you use the word “queue”, I thought only us brits used that word! Are you just trying to impress me with your vocabulary? 😉 That “dude” thing is making me smile, it doesn’t sound like much of a you word. My daughter usually shakes her head and sighs if I try and use a younger person’s word, it’s fun to do though!


      • I’m not sure how queue ended up in my vocabulary. It is used occasionally here in the US, but I think in limited cases. But growing up, I read a lot of English mysteries, and watched many a British-imported comedy on PBS. That may have influenced me. 😉

        And you are so right. “Dude” is not normally something anyone would hear from me. My brain must have decided it was the right time and place, though!


  22. Kourtney Heintz

    For me the biggest problem with new words is pronunciation. I can spell them, but I never say them right.


    • Oops, nearly missed this comment! Yes, that can be the problem with slipping them in can’t it, and then it is of no importance whether you are using them right in terms of meaning, all that is noticed is the mispronunciation!


  23. Ooo…. Reification is a new word for me, I like.

    I tend to not realize I’ve acquired new words until they slip out while I’m writing a sentence and I have to pause and be like “hmm… what IS that?” Then I turn on private browsing because I’m embarrassed to be googling simple words, look up the definition, and am pleased to see I used it in context. Weird how that works.

    Also: Love the doodle from Mike! I’m jealous 😉


    • Oh I always do this, move on to the next post and end up leaving a comment or two unanswered at the bottom of a previous post – naughty Vanessa! Reification is nice isn’t it, it’s nice to say.

      So for you, words just slip through your assessment processes unnoticed, and end up in proper use, excellent!

      I was jealous I didn’t have a Mike doodle for a long time, so be patient 🙂


  24. Since I haven’t always done so, I try to make sure I really understand the definition and can use the word correctly. And I don’t learn words that I’ll never actually use. Don’t want to waste the brain space… 🙂



    • Hi Dani – that’s a good point about not bothering to learn words that won’t get used, I think I sometimes get excited about a new word when I like it, but actually it might be one that I’ll never have a use for. As you say, why waste brain space!


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