I know I’ve truly learned a new word when my brain chants the syllables over and over in a gleeful hymn of recognition the first time I spot a chance to use it in the wild.
I was in high school when I started my first list of unknown words.
It happened because I was tired of acing vocab quizzes in English class without having to study, and that was happening because I was a precocious kid who read a lot of books and seemed unable to stop adding to her already unwieldy (and often socially alienating) internal dictionary.
So I made a list. And I formatted it like the McSweeney’s Internet Tendency homepage, because it was 2005 and that’s what we did back then.
I never did anything so organized as quizzing myself on the entries, but when I rediscovered this artefact it turned out I’d learned almost all the words quite naturally in the course of becoming an adult. (Using them in conversation also seems to put less of a damper on my social life these days. Score one for finding your people.)
Anyway, several years ago I found myself jotting down word after word as I tore through Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk. Her goshawk’s “breast feathers of vermiculated snow” were just the tip of the lexical iceberg. She deployed technical birding terminology and archaic literary expressions with equal and terrific frequency. I hadn’t read anything involving so many new-to-me words in ages.
So I made a new list. Just a messy thing in the notes app on my phone, not modeled after any particular beloved internet comedy website. And, as the books and years rolled by, I kept adding to it.
Eventually some Twitter conversation prompted me to share a selection of choice entries, but I thought it would be even better to catalogue them all on my own site. There’s now a slightly awkward, plugin-fueled version of that very feature here, but you can also subscribe to this RSS feed and it’ll just update your reader every time I add a new word. (The plugin also adds hover-activated definitions when I use catalogued words anywhere on the site, so that’s fun.)
I’ll warn you right now: I copy my definitions willy-nilly from whatever dictionary I have to hand, but I’m starting to get more deliberate about formatting and I do try and cite where I first encountered the word at the end of each entry.
If all goes according to plan, I can look back on this new list in twenty years and wonder how I ever got by without using the word lambrequin in a sentence every other day.
Until then, I hope you’ll enjoy delighting in these new terms as much as I do.