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For The Love Of Words – Vocabulary Games For Adults

vocabularyToday I am going to give you three vocabulary games for adults. Why? Why? I hear you crying out in confusion and madness. Never fear. Trust me. Maybe we’ll both learn something today, and what kind of sick lunatic doesn’t like games? But first, a decree: we could all have richer, more expansive vocabularies than we already do. This is a fact. There are simply too many words out there for someone to know them all, and the person who knew them all probably wouldn’t be able to use them all unless he or she spent their time alone, talking to themselves in the dark. “I’m so smart. I’m soooo smart.” You shall know these wretched creatures by their paleness. 

Why would a person want/need/aspire to a bigger vocabulary?

1. Having a big vocabulary is fun

2. Our thoughts are a function of our language. The more words we know, the better we can think in some instances

3.  It doesn’t take much effort to learn (or retain) more words, which makes you a pusillanimous sucker if you don’t pursue it for reasons one and two. You’re not wallowing in pusillanimity…are you? Didn’t think so. You don’t have to stare at endless lists of vocabulary words.

Let’s examine each of these thunderous bullet points in semi-exquisite detail:

Vocabulary for fun

Seriously, what is not to love about learning more words? Adam Glass is fond of saying to me “I’m lean and efficient at about 200 words, 95% of which are *#@!s and #*(&!s.”

He says this mostly in jest, but I am beyond-super-serious when I tell you that being able to get your point across is not really a cause for gloating or celebration. If a big dirty hog shows up rooting through my refrigerator, it’s telling me that it’s hungry. Bravo! I guess I’ll teach it a word game when it finishes.

It is fun to learn more words because it allows more expressiveness. I’m not talking about the stodgy professors I have had that trot out gems like “interlocutory” and “Brobdingnagian” while talking a damn role call. That, to me, feels like asking someone to feel sentimental attachment to your collection of your own baby teeth that you are so proud of.

It is fun to learn. It is fun to make progress. Each word added to your mind is an investment in the same way that each rep in the gym is an investment in your strength and well-being, provided you’re exercising in a way that is healthful and not damaging.

The relationship between vocabulary and thoughts

Imagine a situation where the citizens of a country are actually asked to weigh in on a decision that the President and politicians are going to make. And better yet, they’re actually going to take our advice. I know, I know, but pretend.

The President says, “I need everyone to vote on how they feel about trepidordinationism. Then we’ll make the decision and God help us all.”

Trepidordinationism is not a real word, unless my stalking of the Oxford English Dictionary has been less vigilant than usual. But what if it was, and only the people in charge knew what it was. It wouldn’t matter whether they wanted my input or not, if I didn’t know the word, I couldn’t weigh in effectively.

Some concepts can only be expressed through language. If you don’t know the words, you can’t participate in dialogue about the concepts. If the concepts matter, we’d better hope that the people who know the words that define the concepts are telling us the truth about the conversation they’re having. And so on.

I nearly failed Intro to Statistics, but I’m going to say that there is a correlation between the words at our command and the clarity and depth of the thoughts we are able to think.

Vocabulary games for learning and retention

All right, here we go. There are three games I want to point you to that will help you learn words, retain your vocabulary, and increase your niftiness by three orders of magnitude. All three of these are fun when they become activities that make you better, not chores that remind us of how little we know. It gets easier as we go.

1. Read

I don’t mean that you know how to read. I mean that you actively read. Anything and everything. All topics and genres. You’re never more likely to encounter unfamiliar words than when you’re reading outside your comfort zone. Now, retention.

2. Read with a dictionary

When you encounter a word you do not know, look it up. I wrote about this over a year ago and it has only become more true for me since then. Please read reasons to read with a dictionary if you are allergic to stupid.

3. Free rice

You may have played this already, but I use it constantly for vocabulary building and do-gooding. freerice.com is an online vocabulary game run by the UN World Food Program. When you get an answer right, rice gets donated to people who need it. Give it a try. I defy you to beat my best score, which I will not tell you right now, because I don’t want you to get discouraged in your quest for more words. Just kidding. But not really.

I learn best when I’m playing. Reading, writing, and cracking open my dictionary all feel like playtime to me. Maybe I’m the sick one, but I love vocabulary games and word games for adults (or kids).


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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Claudia November 17, 2010, 3:46 am

    Loved the freerice, really relaxing, I’ve been playing the entire morning here, donated more than a kilo of rice. It is surely of great help for those who like me don’t have English as mother language.


  • Crestina November 17, 2010, 8:53 am

    I couldn’t agree more with you Josh. Reading is a lot more fun when you try to figure out the meaning of some words you never come across before. When I read, I jot down every new word I encounter on a piece of paper and look it up in my netbook’s dictionary. I’m planning to buy a “real” one though. Any suggestions?

    Thanks for this post. 🙂

  • Daisy November 17, 2010, 3:46 pm

    Do you listen to “A Way with Words” on public radio? Great show – really fun word talk.

    • Josh Hanagarne November 18, 2010, 9:15 am

      I haven’t Daisy, thanks. I’ll see if I can give it a try.

  • Rhamantus November 17, 2010, 5:36 pm

    Thanks for reminding me about freerice! Now when I procrastinate I can do it in a useful way 😉 In all seriousness, I completely agree with this post. I love learning new words. I may not use a large number of them in everyday speech, but it makes reading easier. Learning a second language, especially the Romance languages, makes it easier to determine the meaning of some English words, too.
    Do you subscribe to AWAD (wordsmith.org)? It seems like it’d be something you’d enjoy; I certainly do 🙂

    • Josh Hanagarne November 18, 2010, 9:14 am

      You’re welcome. No, I hadn’t subscribed to that, but you’re right, I’m certainly going to enjoy it, thank you.

  • Sharon October 5, 2011, 11:18 pm

    Reading is a vocabulary game?! Seriously!

    • María Cristina Basantes June 10, 2012, 2:30 pm

      Of course! If you’re interested in a reading, and suddenly you find out a word whose meaning is unknown for you, you are going to look for its meaning immediately. At least, that’s how I have increased my vocabulary.

  • María Cristina Basantes June 10, 2012, 2:28 pm

    Me encantó freerice.com. Gracias por el link (Y)