Margin notes – mostly definitions – in my 1955 edition of Lolita.
The average person knows 20,000 – 35,000 words in their native language. (I took the test at TestYourVocab and got an estimate of 32,800.) Given that ginormous number it seems amazing to me that I can clearly remember where and when I learned some of these words.
When I started reading “hard” stuff, in middle school, (chiefly the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and departing from a habit of just reading whatever my fantasy-obsessed best friend threw at me), I began using a full-size sheet of paper, folded in half, (hamburger-style, as we said in school) as my bookmark. Every time I encountered a word I wasn’t 100% certain I could define I jotted it down and looked it up later. (In a paper dictionary, Jesus I’m old!) Sadly, I didn’t keep any of these pages. I continued to use this kind of bookmark right up until a few months ago when I started using a combination of a paperclip (so that I don’t reread a whole page before coming back to the actual spot where I’ve left off) and, for note-taking, a library hold slip. (I have an envelope an inch these with these slips of thermal-printer paper, cut to perfect bookmark size, and have finally taken to pulling them out of my hold books and sticking them in the recycling bin before I leave the library so that I don’t eventually suffocate in them in my tiny house.) I still jot down the words I am unsure of or have never encountered before – but now I look them up online and post the definitions on my Tumblr. (Check out the “vocabulary” tag.) I tag the posts with the name of the book I found the word in, too.
But there are some words that, for some reason, I clearly remember encountering for the first time. Curiously, I learned none of these memorable words in school. And I didn’t even get them all from books. Here are a few I have been able to verify (there were two I was sure I had read in such-and-such a place that were shockingly absent when I went to check on them!):
Immolate: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. I learned a lot of words from this book. I can hear you laughing but no, they weren’t smutty. In fact there’s nary a smutty word in this contentious tome. Most of what I had to look up in this book I looked up in my French dictionary. I read this way too young but at least I was also learning French at the time, so while the theme may have blown past me for a good twenty years, at least I comprehended the copious French words and phrases.
Charwoman: “The Naval Treaty” (a Sherlock Holmes story) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Not a word I have ever used in speech or writing prior to this moment, so I have no idea why it stuck so firmly in my head.
Screed: Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple. What a handy word! What a great word! This is probably my favorite new vocabulary addition of my adult life. The best word I have learned since diatribe. I like it so much I made it a category on this blog.
Grandeur: Star Wars Episode V:The Empire Strikes Back. Ah, Han Solo. Though I am, and always will be a die-hard Trekkie (didja see what I did there?), Star Wars will always have a special place in my heart thanks to Han Solo. Mostly because of his butt. Can any of us use this word in a non-architectural sense without using the complete phrase “delusions of grandeur”? No. Thank you, Han.
Moot: Rage. This was a werewolf-themed card-based RPG à la Magic, that the aforementioned fantasy-obsessed best friend played. I had to play it with her because, like me, she had no other friends. I was not interested in A) werewolves, B) card games, C) roleplaying, so it was a labor of love. She was just as irritated by my questions about the meaning of the word “moot” every time we played. “I don’t know what it means. It doesn’t matter – those cards aren’t worth any points anyway. Just play.”
And the best of all, the most memorable vocabulary-building moment of my life:
Blow job: It by Stephen King. I remember this so clearly. We were visiting my second-oldest brother at the first house where he and his wife lived, an adorable (but tiny) little cottage he later sold to my third-oldest brother. I was sitting on the couch in the living room with the window behind me and I had raided the cute little arch-topped built-in bookcase so that I didn’t have to engage on conversation with adults. (Ugh. But still a solid strategy I use to this day, at age 35.) I had selected It because the aforementioned only-friend didn’t have great supervision and we had watched the movie recently. (I never have managed to watch it again – and I consider myself a horror movie connoisseur.) My mom walked by as I was reading and I asked her – with the utter casualness of someone who is 100% innocent of the meaning of their own words – “Hey, Mom. What does ‘blow job’ mean?” She was startled, and understandably wanted to know what the hell I was reading. I told her, and she rolled her eyes. To her credit, she didn’t take the book away from me until I explained (already keenly aware of the importance of context) that a bum had just offered one of those to some little boys for a dime. And given that context, I was much more shocked to learn the word’s meaning that I would have been if I had been reading, say, Tropic of Cancer.
Is this one of those weird things I’m alone in, or do any of you have strong memories of learning words?
P.S. For the record, the two I couldn’t verify were: scrim, which I was just sure I got from an Annie Dillard book, and gimlet (in the sense of ‘gimlet eye’, not as in ‘pointy little awl’), which I thought for certain I had picked up from a Sherlock Holmes story.