Worthwhile words

Does having a “Word of the Day” actually work to broaden anyone’s vocabulary?

I sometimes check out the featured word at dictionary.com while I’m there to look up other words, but their words are just about always either words I already know, or words I can’t imagine actually using. I suppose that’s because I have a good vocabulary already, but I really do wonder how much those words serve to educate anyone.

I’ve been thinking about the idea of a word of the day because our Toastmasters meetings always include one. The person assigned as Grammarian for the day, besides counting speakers’ use of filler words (such as er, um, ah), is supposed to present a word of the day at the beginning of the meeting, then count how many times the word gets used in the meeting.

I don’t know just where other people find their words, but some of the words at recent meetings have been burgeon, wunderkind, and ubiquitous. Several people did manage to use ubiquitous this week (though one person actually said ambiquitous), but I’m not sure just how appropriate the word was to the context in which they used it. (However, it was better than when people attempted to use fain a few weeks ago.)

I only remember being grammarian for one meeting, over a year ago, and I don’t remember what word I selected or whether it was used. But sooner or later I’ll be assigned that role again, and I want to come up with a word people can use – and use correctly.

There are a lot of places on the web to find a word of the day. Some of today’s selections are

  • [dictionary.com] ersatz: Being a substitute or imitation, usually an inferior one.
  • [Merriam-Webster Online] ignoramus: An utterly ignorant person : dunce
  • [A.Word.A.Day] pedigree: 1. Lineage or ancestry. 2. A distinguished ancestry. 3. The origin or history of a person or thing.
  • [The Learning Network] disparity: Inequality or difference in some respect
  • [WordThink] salient:  Strikingly conspicuous; prominent. 

I’m sure any of those words could be used without too much trouble at a Toastmasters meeting – and the second one in particular would no doubt be used with great enthusiasm by some of the group’s members. Of course, none of those are at all new to me either, and I would hope that most of them are also well-known to my colleagues.

Whether they are new or not, however, I wonder how much it helps one’s vocabulary to be pushed to use such a word on short notice. Each meeting includes two or three prepared speeches, and four or five impromptu speeches (on a topic assigned right as the person comes up to speak).

If the assignment were to give an impromptu speech using the word of the day, one could come up with an appropriate topic. But given some of the odd topics assigned by the Table Topics Master (which will be my role at next week’s meeting), trying to work in the word of the day seems to invite misuse of the word.

Our Competent Communicator manual gives guidelines to prepare for speeches. One piece of advice, for one of the early speeches, says to use ordinary words everyone knows and understands, rather than throwing in long words that people may not understand. I asked my mentor why, in that case, we were urged to use the word of the day, which is usually a long and somewhat unfamiliar word. She had no answer. 

Having looked through several sites, I think that I like WordThink best. Unlike many word-of-the-day sites, WordThink’s function is “Providing ‘Real-World’ Words You Can Use Every Day.” Of course, that may well be where this week’s grammarian got ubiquitous from, as I see it in the list of favorite words there. As I arrived at the meeting late, I missed hearing the definition. But given that at least one speaker claimed to be ubiquitous, I think the “everywhere at the same time” aspect of the meaning was not understood.

I love learning words. For years (decades, actually), I did the “It Pays to Increase Your Word Power” quiz in Reader’s Digest every month. When I started, in middle school, I struggled to get a majority of the words right. By the time I let my subscription lapse, several years ago, I rarely missed more than one or two, and occasionally got a perfect score. I don’t know how many words I actually learned from that feature, but it certainly showed that wherever I was getting my vocabulary from, it was growing.

I’ve never liked being pushed to use new words, however. When a word fits the meaning I want to express, I’ll use it. But shoehorning a word into my speech just for the sake of using it? No thanks.

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