“Crepuscular!” He was getting desperate now, having exhausted his list of the most obscure words. His face fell as I gave him the definition. He tried another and scowled… “How do you do that?”
“I read.” The words he dangled before me, trying to catch me out, may not be common in verbal usage, but they have cropped up often enough in books to learn their meaning through meeting them in different contexts and from different angles. Except for unfamiliar technical terms, I don’t look up words when I read. It isn’t necessary to fully understand every word to experience a story… you need, instead, to enter fully into the tale and feel it as you read. Over decades of reading, you encounter words in so many phrases that your understanding of their layers of meaning evolves and eventually becomes clear.
For me, that seems the best way to expand the vocabulary. It is easy to reach for a dictionary and have some else tell you the skeletal meaning of a word, but a dictionary can only go so far. It cannot teach you about the way an individual writer used the word… or the feelings their characters were going through… the personal interpretation or emotional overlay that goes with a word when it used rather than taught.
A dictionary is a useful tool that gives a cold, clinical definition that gives you a basic sense of a word… a story makes it vivid, bringing a depth of emotion and association to the self-same word. The one teaches from someone else’s perspective, taking a consensus of meaning that allows you to learn about the word, the other allows you to learn from experience and makes it personal… and experience is always the most effective teacher.
I watched my granddaughter learning the other day. “No!” said her Mum as the little one extended a tentative finger. “It’s hot.” The small explorer has no concept of ‘hot’. So far, she has not burned herself. She did stop though, because she does have experience of that firm ‘no’. She will undoubtedly burn her fingers one day regardless of parental vigilance… hopefully no more than it takes to understand that ‘hot’ is not good in that particular context. Yet she will also learn that a hot day means sunshine and ice cream… and that eating dinner while it is hot is also good. One day, she will grow up and learn that ‘hot’ can have a whole other connotation of which she had no idea too.
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