One reason to spend time and effort improving your vocabulary is that words have the power to change how you see the world. Further, our ability to use vocabulary effectively is one of the primary means by which we communicate and connect with important people in our lives. Choosing just the right word adds precision and clarity to our speech and writing. Words are the tools we use to inform, advise, persuade, and reason. But to start expanding your vocabulary, you need a structured approach and principles.
Learning words is not an all-or-nothing affair, as though one moment, you’ve never heard of a word and then, immediately after looking it up in the dictionary, you become an expert user of that word. A better metaphor that vocabulary researchers use is the dimmer switch, which gradually increases the amount of light in a room. Vocabulary learning works in the same way—gradually and incrementally. First, learn the definition then gradually become comfortable with how it’s used in various contexts.
Most people can rate their knowledge of a particular word on a scale of 1 to 4, using the levels proposed by the educational researcher Edgar Dale:
1. I do not know the word, and I have never seen it before.
2. I’ve heard of the word before, but I’m not sure what it means.
3. I know the word and can recognize and understand it while reading, but I probably wouldn’t feel comfortable using it in writing or speech.
4. I know the word well and can use it in writing and speaking.
Let’s explore the word factotum as an example of best practices in learning.
First, definition: factotum is someone hired to do a variety of jobs, someone who has many responsibilities.
Second, place the word in context, using it in a sentence; “ Marie, the office factotum does the billing, answers the phones, helps out in the PR department, and even knows how to cook a mean blueberry scone—she’s indispensable!”
Third, make connections to the word. Think of some examples of a factotum in your life, such as a general handyman or even your mother. To make the connection personal, picture the word itself next to an image of this person in your mind.
Fourth, take the time to explore the word in a little more depth. In this case, you might learn that the root of factotum, fac, is from the Latin verb facio, meaning “to make or do.” Another English word that starts with fac is factory, a place where things are made. The key word factory can help you remember the meaning of the root fac. In addition, the Latin word totum—the second part of factotum—means “all.” Thus, a factotum is someone who “does it all.” If you remember factotum in this way, you’ll never forget it.
Conclusion: To make factotum memorable, we used four principles of vocabulary learning.