One of the elements of the honors English class I teach is a vocabulary program we refer to as Wordly Wise (the name of the book we use). Although the word “toady” does not appear as one of my students’ words to study, it does appear as an answer choice on a section of one of their quizzes–and they never know what it means. To be quite honest, when the first student ever to ask me about it raised her hand a few years ago, I wasn’t familiar with it either, and had to look it up. While I am more than familiar with the word now, and very accustomed to explaining its meaning to puzzled students each and every semester, I have yet to really use it in my own writing or daily conversation, though I often use many of its more commonly heard synonyms. Featuring it as this week’s Word of the Week is my effort to employ it more often, as well.
While “toady,” at least to me, seems as though it should function as an adjective, it is in fact a noun and a verb. When used as a noun, “toady” is synonymous with words like “sycophant,” “flatterer,” and “doormat.” In other words, a toady is a brownnoser. When used as a verb, “to toady” means to grovel, flatter, or suck up.
According to Merriam-Webster, you shouldn’t feel but so foolish if, before this post, you weren’t familiar with the word “toady;” it falls in the bottom 50% of word popularity. One of its synonyms–the one, in fact that my students must pair with “toady,” “sycophant,” is in the bottom 40%–but the top 1% of look-ups. And, just for fun, let’s throwback to last week: “perse” is in the bottom 30% of word popularity.
What does all that mean? Well, it means, of course, that by adding these words to your vocabulary, you are securing your place at the top of the linguistic-ability ladder. And you are empowered to write and speak more precisely.
I remember when, in third grade, I learned the word “conservatory,” a simile for “greenhouse,” and how proud I felt when a line of “big kids” paraded quietly past our third-grade classroom just as my teacher was announcing to us that the next word we were to spell on our spelling test was “conservatory.” Those big kids, I was sure, must be so impressed walking by our classroom of little third graders only to find we could spell, say, and use a word as impressive as “conservatory.” Though I now know those big kids probably didn’t even pay attention to what my teacher was saying as they headed down the hall to gym or lunch or art or various other elementary school destinations, I still savor the memory of that moment, and the pride I felt at having learned a new word.
I remember when, in fifth or sixth grade, I read the word “alabaster” in one of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Avonlea books. I believe one of the characters was described as having had “an alabaster brow.” I’m not sure why that word and that phrasing made such an impression on me, but it did, and I immediately internalized the word and began using it in my own writing.
Now, despite having earned a Bachelor’s degree with a minor in English and a Master’s degree with a concentration in Creative Writing; despite teaching high school English for the last ten years; despite reading as many novels as I can squeeze into every summer; despite participating in writing workshops and conferences on a regular basis–I haven’t had this memorable an experience of acquiring and internalizing a new word in years. More and more I find myself struggling for the most precise word to say whatever it is I want to say. And more and more often, the struggle is real–and in vain. I end up settling for the same old repertoire of words I have employed for decades.
I miss the invigorating feeling of accomplishment and mastery I feel when I have expanded my vocabulary–not to mention the fact that someone experiencing this sensation has just gained the ability to better express his or her thoughts, emotions, and experiences. The larger your vocabulary, the more exactly you can say what you mean, and the more fine-tuned your written and spoken communications will be.
In an effort to rekindle my seemingly latent ability to employ new words, I have decided to institute a Word of Week–an assignment for myself, and hopefully a way for you to grow your vocabulary alongside mine. Each week (I’ll aim for each week…), I will randomly open the dictionary and point to a word until my finger lands on an unfamiliar one, or I will feature a new word I have recently come across.
Our first-ever Word of the Week is:
perse: adjective; a dark grayish blue color, approaching indigo
I happened upon this word while Googling “pursed,” a verb that appears in the novel I am working on. In a moment of paranoia and second-guessing, I wondered if maybe it was actually spelled “persed” when used in the context I had in mind, though I didn’t even know if “perse” would be a verb or an adjective (or if it even existed in the English language at all). My search revealed to me two things:
I was correct in my original use of “pursed” and
“Perse” is actually a word, an adjective that is essentially a synonym for indigo.
Now, if I want to more precisely express that the “blue wash of water was here and there interrupted by flashes of blinding white waves, impossible to tell apart from bobbing gulls, except for their abbreviated existence,” I can replace “blue” with “perse.” After all, “blue” is as likely to mean the aquamarine of the postcard-perfect Caribbean as it is to mean the navy of an ocean at sunset or the cerulean of the sky just before dawn. In learning of the existence of “perse,” and employing it in my writing, I can more perfectly describe a color that I might otherwise just have labeled a “dark, grayish blue.”
Tim Ferriss's 4-Hour Workweek and Lifestyle Design Blog. Tim is an author of 5 #1 NYT/WSJ bestsellers, investor (FB, Uber, Twitter, 50+ more), and host of The Tim Ferriss Show podcast (400M+ downloads)
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