The Final Steps to Learning New Words – involve interaction.
If I wanted you to learn how to use a wrench, I wouldn’t just give you a document that lays out its uses, or a definition of a wrench, or even just show you how it works. I would want you to take it in your hands and use it to wrench something.
We have this conception of our brains as infinitely absorptive; we think that if we know something NOW we will know it tomorrow and the days after that. Unfortunately, that’s not true. Our brains are made to sift through all of the seemingly useless information we’re observing and receiving every day.
Taking the wrench in hand provides a physical context for its definition. We can watch someone use it, but until we actually heft its weight against a lug-nut or a screw we don’t truly understand the physics of it, the three-dimensional reality of its work.
Words are the same way, and there is a physics to language. Once you’ve looked up a word, you need to define it for yourself, in your own words. This way you get past thinking you understand it to actually understanding it. I suggest keeping a pocket dictionary where you list all of the new words you learn, with their definitions.
Then, use the word itself. Discuss it, use it in sentences, share it with people, see how it interacts with your world and the concepts and ideas you find important. Find sentences to put it in and come to grips with its weight.
That’s, basically, the reason why I started this blog – to discuss new words and train myself in using them, so that they find their way into my daily vocabulary. It’s been working wonderfully.
Oneiric, adj.: Of or relating to dreams.
Thanks for this one go to Liana at the Hour of Soft Light. In her short poem – or story – she is on a treadmill and writing furiously. Her friend asks her why she risks falling off of the treadmill – and she answers, “Well, I’ve just found the word for dreamlike.”
The word for. Why do we need more than one word for one meaning? What is the difference between “oneiric” and “dreamlike”? Between “German” and “Teutonic” or even “healthy,” “hale” and “salubrious”?
In some cases, like the latter, the different words have slightly different meanings. “Healthy” has many distinct meanings, but “hale” specifically refers to a person or thing which is in good health, while “salubrious” usually means something health-giving.
But “oneiric” and “dreamlike” are synonymous. So to what special world does “oneiric” take Liana, in which she risks falling off of her treadmill she’s so bound up in the excitement?
Words are like spells which, with all the fullness of images, present experiences for our minds and our senses. Generation to generation new images are needed, new styles of art, which express the new age’s sensibilities – or just as importantly, provide a new way of experiencing the same sensibilities. New words, even when they say the same thing, create fresh impressions of old ideas.
Except for slang, which is fairly limited in its scope, and technological developments, we don’t invent so many new words in each generation in the same way that we invent new styles of art and new images. There are not schools of word-smiths, inventing neologisms for the new ways of looking at the world. We enjoy, instead, the rush of combining old words into new phrases, or the excitement of discovering a word we never knew existed, which expresses something we’ve always wanted to express.
We think we know our language, especially those of us who make daily, in-depth use of it: writers, poets, orators, etc. But its scope is always broader than the user’s understanding of it. “I’ve just found the word for dreamlike,” says Liana, smilingly. What she’s pointing out here is the pleasure of being proven, to some degree, ignorant; the naturalist does not want to think that she knows every insect and leaf, she wants there to be something left to discover.
And every word, through its differing sound and combination of letters, its various background and history of meaning and subtlety (even if its dictionary definition is the same as another’s), claims its own texture, its own special feel as it’s used.
She says “I found the word.” “Dreamlike” becomes a clumsy conflation compared to “oneiric”; there is no word for this concept, it seems to suggest, and so we had to lump two words together. We had no trains, so we hitched the cars to one-another; no wagons, so we’ve tied baskets to our saddles. There is an elegance to a word which has seemingly sprung up out of the earth to form a meaning, which a compound conglomeration cannot touch.
The snow turns the familiar streets oneiric, deserted, soft. The film’s oneiric scenes illuminated a landscape of fear behind the protagonist’s actions.