Bryan Garner on Words

Face a classic word challenge and increase your personal power


Photo of Bryan Garner by Teri Glanger.

After reading my April column, the redoubtable Judge Thomas M. Reavley—for whom I clerked when he was merely a sexagenarian (he’s now a nonagenarian)—called me to suggest a new book: one on the useful words that lawyers ought to know.

A vocabulary-building book? “Perhaps,” he said. “Just whatever words you consider useful.” That brought back memories.

I’m not an entirely fair judge of utility. First, I’m a lexicographer. Second, I was skewed as a teenager. Here is a brief account.


When I was 15, an extremely fortunate thing happened to me. A girl whom I’d long admired said, quite memorably: “Bryan, you have a really big vocabulary.” She seemed impressed. She had heard me use the word facetious. That’s all. An ordinary word.

Hmmm. She likes a big vocabulary, I thought. I spent the next year “working out,” making it much bigger: I learned at least 20 new words per day, writing them out in longhand, together with all their definitions. Soon I was browsing through dictionaries, hours at a time, just to find new words to add to my journal. My reading preferences were largely dictated by which books would most likely yield the greatest number of new words.

My older brother, Brad, would tell my parents: “Mom! Dad! Bryan’s reading the dictionary again!” He thought something was quite wrong with me. The whole family thought it odd, but soon my mother began a game: challenging me with any conceivably useful word in the dictionary. As she would browse and prompt me with a word, I would define it aloud for her—typically getting 90 percent right on a good day and adding the words I missed to my list.

All this in a secret attempt to win over a girl. I never called her on the phone, and she never again seemed to notice my huge vocabulary. I eventually forgot about her. In fact, it took me some years to realize that females aren’t generally impressed by lexiphanicism.

Today I own some 300 books devoted to vocabulary-building. I’ve read many and scanned the rest. Crazy, I know. But it pleases me no end to read John Updike and David Foster Wallace without ever having to look up a word.

That’s my preface. Now to the matter.

If I were to hazard a fairly educated guess, I’d say that American lawyers’ vocabularies range roughly from 45,000 to 135,000 words. Further, I’d guess that those who know 100,000 to 135,000 words have, on average, at least double the income of those who know only 45,000 to 70,000 words. I would also guess that there are many more lawyers at the lower end of the scale than at the higher end.

Perhaps you’re aware of E.D. Hirsch’s influential new essay, “A Wealth of Words,” in which Hirsch makes several important arguments, including these three:

“Vocabulary size is a convenient proxy for a whole range of educational attainments and abilities—not just skill in reading, writing, listening and speaking but also general knowledge of science, history and the arts.”

“Correlations between vocabulary size and life chances are as firm as any correlations in educational research.”

“Between 1962 and the present, a big segment of the American population began knowing fewer words, getting less smart and becoming demonstrably less able to earn a high income.”

The educational-policy implications are weighty, but I have no intention of allowing this column to become ponderous. Instead, let’s make it a parlor game. What follows is a 20-question vocabulary exam based on Johnson O’Connor’s 1948 book English Vocabulary Builder. Each of the following words was known to less than 20 percent of O’Connor’s test-takers in the 1940s, but each was also a word that O’Connor judged to be genuinely useful. To ensure that the words have actual utility to lawyers, I checked each one (together with inflected forms for verbs) to see how often it has appeared in post-1900 caselaw, using the Allcases database in Westlaw. This number is given at the end of each entry.

So take this short exam and see how you fare. If you’re a section leader in your organization, administer it for 12 minutes at the beginning of a section meeting—as a means of both self-assessment and group assessment. Both the ABA Journal and I grant you full permission to make as many photocopies of this article as you need for test-takers. Good luck. At the end of the article, I’ll recommend some ways of boosting your scores on future diagnostic quizzes. And if you get a perfect score, the world is truly your oyster.

1. Adjure /uh-JOOR/ = (a) to forswear, disavow; (b) to request earnestly, beseech; (c) to put off to another day; (d) to dismiss. 436 cases.

2. Adventitious /ad-ven-TISH-uhs/ = (a) beneficial; (b) advantageous, propitious; (c) characterized by braggadocio about one’s exploits; (d) accidental, extraneous, entering by chance. 1,030 cases.

3. Apothegm /AP-uh-them/ = (a) pithy saying; (b) pharmaceutical prescription; (c) a syllogism with an implied premise; (d) something that is spiral-shaped. 98 cases.

4. Bowdlerize /BOWD-luh-ryze/ = (a) to chastise; (b) to expunge taboo words or nasty passages; (c) to print privately; (d) to harangue at length. 55 cases.

5. Chimerical /kye-MER-i-kuhl/ = (a) contemplative, reflective; (b) imaginary, having no real existence except in thought; (c) monstrous; (d) of or relating to Greek characters. 1,135 cases.

6. Cozened /KUHZ-uhnd/ = (a) conceived in wedlock; (b) defrauded, cheated; (c) favored; (d) pampered. 62 cases.

7. Demesne /di-MEEN/ = (a) lineage; (b) control; (c) face; (d) estate, manor house and land. 226 cases.

8. Dissembling /di-SEM-bling/ = (a) giving a false impression, feigning; (b) taking apart; (c) not resembling; (d) having a dissimilar sound. 2,166 cases.

9. Lucubration /loo-k[y]oo-BRAY-shuhn/ = (a) thoughtlessness; (b) lack of clarity; (c) laborious study, meditation; (d) the lighting of one’s messuage. 55 cases.

10. Factious /FAK-shuhs/ = (a) authoritative; (b) easily breakable; (c) given to party strife, captious; (d) artificial. 84 cases.

11. Irrefragable /i-ri-FRAG-uh-buhl/ = (a) undeniable, irrefutable; (b) unbendable; (c) strong; (d) rebuttable. 741 cases.

12. Legerdemain /lej-uhr-di-MAYN/ = (a) sleight of hand; (b) bookkeeping; (c) the making of false records; (d) official malfeasance. 1,461 cases.

13. Malefaction /mal-i-FAK-shuhn/ = (a) the production of unnutritious mother’s milk; (b) evil deed, crime; (c) a man’s accomplishment; (d) dissatisfaction. 188 cases.

14. Noisome /NOY-suhm/ = (a) outrageously loud; (b) quarrelsome; (c) offensive, extremely disgusting; (d) destructive. 648 cases.

15. Paean /PEE-uhn/ = (a) a dirge, song or poem of lament; (b) a wood nymph; (c) a song of praise or triumph; (d) a Roman demigod. 161 cases.

16. Privation /prye-VAY-shuhn/ = (a) breach of privacy; (b) the absence of what is needed, destitution; (c) economy; (d) a defect. 1,343 cases.

17. Quisling /KWIZ-ling/ = (a) an infant found at a doorstep; (b) an accomplished test-taker; (c) a merchant seaman; (d) a traitor. 40 cases.

18. Restive /REST-iv/ = (a) impatient; (b) restful, at ease; (c) unable to relax, continually moving; (d) laborious. 325 cases.

19. Truculence /TRUHK-yuh-luhnts/ = (a) fierceness, ferocity; (b) rusticity, country life; (c) immateriality combined with irrelevancy; (d) servility. 98 cases.

20. Weal /weel/ = (a) well-being, prosperity; (b) personal effects; (c) foodstuffs; (d) cartilage. 1,998 cases.

Click here for the answers, or scroll down.

Let’s say you didn’t fare as well as you wanted to. You might (1) dismiss the exam as a ridiculous exercise with ridiculous words and comfort yourself that, having passed the bar, you shouldn’t ever be subjected to such indignities anyway; or (2) resolve to work on your knowledge of English words by habitually recording every unfamiliar word you encounter. (I suppose there are many other possible reactions, but let’s stick with those two.) If you react in the first way, I can’t imagine you’ve even read this far; if you’re irremediably indignant, I can’t help anyway. But if you react in the second way, read on.


If you want to work on your vocabulary, discipline yourself to note (perhaps on a slip of paper you carry in your wallet) each word you encounter but aren’t sure you understand. You’ll be looking them up later. Of course, you can also check your mobile device on the spot, but I think you’re less likely to retain the word long-term.

Once you’ve collected a few words—I sometimes get up to 20 or 30 on a list—devote a little time to opening a dictionary and recording the word and its definitions, preferably in a document or notebook reserved for this purpose. You might note also the pronunciation, the etymology (the word’s origin and derivation), and the source where you encountered it. Then review your notebook periodically, trying to use the various words in sentences of your own devising.

No one actually does this, you say? I’ve done it since I was 15, and my notebook is many hundreds of pages long. The late Wallace did it—and his notebook now belongs to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Many serious writers, if not most, have done it. So please consider how valuable this new habit may be.

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