March 6th, 2020 by Jane Turner
How to increase your vocabulary – *wisdom from an editor (*a totally subjective opinion!)
Why me? In case you didn’t realise, I’m a bit of a wordsmith. I have a substantial vocabulary and I know a lot about words.
So in this post I wanted to talk about vocabulary and idiolect.
Don’t believe me? Find and watch Manhunt:Unabomber. For those who don’t know or haven’t seen the show, The Unabomber terrorised the USA with mail bombs for nearly 20 years, killing three and injuring many more before his capture in 1996. (And, I just found out that he and I have the same birthday. Ahem. Moving swiftly on…)
The show tells of how the Unabomber’s writings – his letters, sentences, phrases, and even spelling – was unique and identifiable. Was personal to him. He had his own idiolect, and through this was able to be positively identified and captured.
A dialect is your accent, your local speech. How, with a couple of words out of your mouth, someone can tell where you grew up. Some dialects are rich and fanciful, some sound more ‘street’ and common, but everyone has one. (I’ve a softened Australian dialect, if you’re wondering. No, I don’t sound like Steve Irwin. Softened, I said. *sigh*)
An idiolect is more about your word selection – which words you use, how you use them. This can be written or spoken, but it’s part of what makes you, you. This is your pattern of speech, your way of writing.
You have your own idiolect. Everyone does – it’s not really something we can avoid. How you use words, phrases you use, your sentence structure, is all unique to you.
If you want to change your dialect, you’ll need to work damn hard over a long period of time!
To change your idiolect, one simple way is to improve your language skills and vocabulary.
If your goal is to be a writer (and, maybe, make use of my editorial services in future!), increasing your vocabulary is essential.
Read anything and everything. Fiction, non-fiction, encyclopaedias, self-help books, newspapers, magazines – it doesn’t matter what, just read. Obviously, some sources will have more information and hence more words you may not know, but reading is an excellent place to start!
Essential for looking up words you don’t know, use your dictionary often! I’ve read all my life and still come across words I don’t know. There is absolutely nothing wrong with using a dictionary – you’re looking for information on something you don’t understand, and that’s never a bad thing.
Scrabble, Boggle, Word Drop – any game that challenges you to identify words. There will be a lot of shorter words acceptable that we don’t use in day to day life (fa, ti, lo, for example), but you’ll soon be able to identify those, too. Anagram games are also good, where you’re given a batch of letters and have to rearrange them to create new words. (e.g. listen – silent / dreads – sadder).
A thesaurus is a list of synonyms, or related concepts. After using your dictionary, look the word up in your thesaurus. A thesaurus is an essential piece of equipment for a writer.
Journaling is an incredible hobby – and yes, it is kind of a hobby. You can turn it into a diary by writing about your day, you can write down things you want to remember, write short stores or poems, write what you have to do tomorrow. It doesn’t really matter what you write, as long as you’re writing. And the more you write, the more words you’ll want to use – which is where your dictionary and thesaurus come in!
I heartily recommend Aaron Sorkin’s creative works (The West Wing, The Newsroom, Molly’s Game, The Social Network – look here for his filmography). These are some of my favourite shows/films and absorbing his language skills is an ongoing project in my life!
If you’re a fan of soap operas, try something different – maybe a little science fiction? If you’re a scifi fan, try watching a western. Mix it up, and learn more words without even realising it. And EVERYONE should be watching documentaries.
TV isn’t just for entertainment, and documentaries can be incredibly interesting! (I watched one just last night about the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (commonly known as the V&A). Their curators and preservation people were working on the fake Frankenstein’s monster from the original 1930s Frankenstein films! It was used during filming of the classic horror as a stand in, and dressed in Boris Karlof’s actual costume! (BBCiPlayer, Secrets of the Museum, Ep5). I can’t say enough about the value of documentary programming. Turn your subtitles/closed captions on so you can read what you hear, and keep your dictionary to hand for anything you don’t understand.
There are other things you can do, too.
Buy yourself the ‘Word A Day’ calendar. Sign up to one of the various Word of the Day websites (one of them run by Merriam-Webster, the handbook of American English. The handbook of British English, if you’re looking for it, is the Oxford Dictionary).
As soon as you start looking, you’ll realise opportunities to increase your vocabulary are all around you. Download a dictionary app for your phone, and off you go.
Enjoy your freshly grown vocabulary!