Face a classic word challenge and increase your personal power
Posted Sep 13, 2013 5:30 PM CST
By Bryan Garner
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.
SHAPING THE MAN
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.
Click here to read the rest of the article and take the 20-question vocabulary exam from the September issue of the ABA Journal.