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The Complete Idiot's Guide to a Smart Vocabulary The Complete Idiot's Guide to a Smart Vocabulary


"The value of vocabulary is unequivocal. A person with a large vocabulary is able to receive, explore, modify, and express complex ideas and emotions with greater ease and success—and far less frustration and impatience—than the possessor of a small vocabulary. Vocabulary elasticizes a mind."

—Peter Anderson, American writer

Do you want to be successful in school or in your career? Do you want higher marks, a higher income, or a higher position on the corporate ladder? Do you want to improve your relationships with the people around you? Do you want to get the most out of what you read and hear? If so, then here's the secret: Improve your vocabulary!

Yes, it is as simple as that. Why? Because vocabulary is intimately linked to communication, and study after study has shown that the key to academic, business, and personal success is having above-average communication skills. These skills come in two flavors: expression and comprehension. Expression means conveying your thoughts, ideas, and arguments to others by speaking or by writing. If you can express yourself well, other people will be able to follow your train of thought, grasp your ideas, and appreciate your arguments. On the flip side, comprehension means understanding the oral and written communications that come your way, which enables you to better relate to other people, appreciate their points of view, and counter their arguments. It also means being better able to learn the ideas and concepts presented in books, articles, and papers, all of which improves your knowledge.

Words are at the heart of both expression and comprehension—one researcher has called words "the tools of thought"—so your vocabulary directly determines the level of your communication skills and therefore your success at school, home, or your job. It sounds unlikely, but it's true. In fact, one study done by the Johnson O'Connor Research Foundation showed that the only thing successful businesspeople have in common is a large vocabulary!

Welcome, therefore, to The Complete Idiot's Guide to a Smart Vocabulary. My goal in this book is to help you become more successful at whatever you do by helping you increase your vocabulary. I do this not only by taking you through a big collection of words—more than 3,000 are defined in this book—but by taking a different approach than any other vocabulary book:

  • This book is organized by subject. Other vocabulary books just throw a list of words at you in alphabetical order (boring!) or in some random order (confusing!). In this book, I present the words in self-contained chapters, each of which is devoted to a particular subject such as human behavior, business, the stock market, computers, the Internet, and foreign terms.

  • This book cares about nuances. One of the keys to a strong vocabulary is being able to use words precisely. That means knowing the slightly different shades of meaning that one word has over another. For example, do you know the difference between a charlatan and a con man? You'll find out in Chapter 1, "It Takes All Kinds: Types of People."

  • This book is conversational. Few things in this world are as dull as a vocabulary book that simply lists page after page of words and their definitions. To avoid such drudgery, in most of the chapters in this book, I use a relaxed, conversational style to introduce and talk about each main word and the related words.

  • This book enjoys words. I am a logophile, a lover of words. For proof, you need look no further than my company name: Logophilia Limited. I've tried wherever possible to inject this love of words into this book's text, and it's my sincerest hope that at least a little of it rubs off on you because an appreciation and curiosity for words is the surest road to vocabulary prowess.

  • This book is fun. Most vocabulary books make you feel as though a furrowed brow and rigidly pursed lips are the only appropriate facial expressions for the serious business of vocabulary study. Well, there will be none of that around here! I aim to prove that having fun and learning new words are not mutually exclusive.

Some Tips for Learning Vocabulary

Because you use words all day and every day, learning vocabulary is quite a bit different than, say, learning calculus or biology. This means you need to approach your vocabulary studies in a different way. To help you do so and to help you get the most out of this book, here are a few pointers and tips for learning new words:

  • Say each word out loud, particularly those that come with a phonetic pronunciation guide. I know it feels silly, but it's the only way to ensure you get the pronunciation right.

  • Do the exercises that appear at the end of each chapter. Feel free to write your answers directly in the book. (I won't mind, I promise.) That will make it easier to check your answers by referring to Appendix A (which you should do as soon as you've finished the chapter's exercises, to make sure you're on the right track).

  • Read books, magazines, Web sites, and other media on subjects that interest you.

  • When you're reading, don't just skip over words you don't recognize, even if you think you can guess the meaning of a word from the context. Instead, take a few seconds and look up the word in a good dictionary.

  • Consider investing in a good pocket dictionary that you can take with you when you leave the house. This will enable you to look up unfamiliar words as you come across them in your travels.

  • If you're at a social function and someone uses a word you don't recognize, don't be afraid to ask that person the meaning of the word. Most people enjoy showing off their vocabulary and won't mind your question one bit. If you're too shy, make a mental note of the word and look it up when you get home.

  • When you learn a new word, try to work it into your writing and conversation as soon as possible and as often as possible.

  • Don't try to learn too many words at once. For example, instead of trying to learn all the words in a particular chapter at once (50 to 100 words), just work through the chapter one heading at a time (10 to 20 words).

  • Give yourself some time between sessions. After reading a section, take time to practice the words and work them into your daily routine. When you're comfortable with what you've learned, move on to the next section.

  • Drop by the home page of this book to find a couple of bonus chapters. One of them covers words related to medical terminology and the other is devoted to terms from evolution, genetics, and biotechnology. Here's the address:

  • If you have a computer and access to the Internet, keep up with the latest lingo by checking out my Word Spy Web site at:

    This site is devoted to recently coined words, existing words that have enjoyed a recent renaissance, and older words that are now being used in new ways. Each weekday, the Word Spy presents a new word, its definition, and a citation (usually from a major newspaper or magazine) that shows how people are using the word. You also get extra goodies such as background on the word's formation, a list of related words from the Word Spy database, quotations on words and language, and more. Better yet, you can subscribe to the free Word Spy mailing list and get each Word Spy word sent directly to your e-mail inbox. To subscribe, send an e-mail to the following address:

    In the Subject line of the message, enter the following:

    join wordspy

    Learning Some Vocabulary Lingo

    Throughout this book, I'll be tossing certain vocabulary-related words your way, so let's take a second now to define these terms so you won't trip over them later (the next section describes the pronunciation scheme I use here):

    adjective (AJ·ik·tiv)—A word that describes or specifies the characteristics of a NOUN or PRONOUN. For example, in the phrase the fun book, the word fun is used as an adjective for the noun book. Note that I use the abbreviation adj. for adjective throughout this book.

    adverb (AD·vurb)—A word that modifies a VERB, an ADJECTIVE, or another adverb. For example, in the sentence She learns vocabulary quickly, the word quickly is an adverb that modifies the verb learns. I use the abbreviation adv. for adverb throughout this book.

    antonym (AN·tuh·nim)—A word that has the opposite meaning of another word. For example, up is the antonym of down.

    etymology (et·uh·MOL·uh·jee)—The history of a word. For example, the etymology of etymology is that it comes from the Greek word etumologia, which combines etumon, "the true sense of a word," with logia, "the study of."

    idiom (ID·ee·um)—An expression that is peculiar to a particular language and that can't be understood by examining its individual words. For example, to say that someone has a screw loose means he's a bit crazy, but of course, he doesn't have an actual loose screw anywhere. So if someone who didn't know English very well came across this idiom, she wouldn't be able to figure out its meaning by looking up each word in a dictionary.

    lexicon (LEKS·i·kon or LEKSs·i·kun)—The entire list of words in a particular language, subject, or profession, or the words that are known by a person.

    noun (nown)—A word that is the name of a person, place, thing, quality, or action. For example, in the phrase laugh at the silly author, the word author is the noun.

    prefix (PREE·fiks)—A group of one or more letters placed at the beginning of a word and used to modify the meaning of the word. For example, the prefix non- means "not," so adding it to the word stop gives us nonstop, "without stopping."

    pronoun (PROH·nown)—A word that functions as a substitute for a noun. Examples are I, you, we, they, he, she, myself, and anybody.

    root (root, rhymes with "boot")—The part of a word that carries the main meaning; the part that remains when the PREFIXES and SUFFIXES have been removed. For example, the root of the word unhelpful is the word help. (Note that the root isn't necessarily a word in itself.)

    suffix (SUF·iks)—A group of one or more letters placed at the end of a PREFIX, ROOT, or word and used to create a new the word. For example, the suffix -logy means "the study of," so adding it to the prefix bio-, "life," gives us biology "the study of life."

    synonym (SIN·uh·nim)—A word that has the same or nearly the same meaning as another word. For example, the word lexicon is a synonym for the word vocabulary.

    verb (vurb)—A word that expresses action or existence. For example, in the sentence She opens the book, the word opens is the verb.

    A Few More Things About the Book

    Just so you know what to expect as you march through the book, here's a list of the various features and knickknacks that I've sprinkled throughout:

    • Main words versus secondary words. The book's main words are the ones I devote the most attention to, which means you get one or more of the following: the definition, the pronunciation, the part of speech (noun, verb, and so on), a sample sentence, and the word's ETYMOLOGY. To help you recognize the main words, I've formatted them (and their variations) in bold. The secondary words are the SYNONYMS and ANTONYMS of the main words; the ROOTS, PREFIXES, and SUFFIXES; and any other related words that fit into the subject under discussion. The secondary words are formatted in italics.

    • Phonetic pronunciation. I hate vocabulary books that use obscure pronunciation symbols that you constantly have to look up to figure out how to say a word. I avoid that in this book by using a "phonetic" pronunciation scheme that uses ordinary letters to show you how to say a word. For example, I use ee to represent the long "e" sound in a word such as read. Here are some notes to bear in mind:

      • I use the symbol · to separate the word's syllables.

      • I use uppercase letters to indicate the syllable that should be stressed. For example, the pronunciation of syllable is SIL·uh·bul, so you stress the first syllable.

      • English doesn't have any straightforward way to represent the sound made by the si in vision, for example. So I use the letter combo zh to fix that, which means the pronunciation of vision would be VIZH·un.

      • The letter pair th can be pronounced either as in thin or as in the. I'll note which one to use when giving you the pronunciation of words that include th. For example, the pronunciation of athlete would appear like so: ATH·leet, "th" as in "thin."

      • In all pronunciations, the letter s is hissed. For example, here's the pronunciation of once: wuns. On the other hand, for words that use s with a z sound, I'll just use z. For example, here's the pronunciation of wins: winz.

      • Finally, some letter combinations sound different depending on the word. The combo oo is a good example if you consider the pronunciations of the simple words foot and root. For foot I'd use fuht, but for root I'd say "rhymes with 'boot.'"

    • End-of-chapter exercises. Each chapter closes with a series of exercises designed to help you understand and retain some of the words in the chapter. You'll find the answers to the exercises in Appendix A.

    • Pointers to related words. A great way to sharpen your vocabulary is to study related words and see how they differ. To help you do that, I've added "See also" pointers throughout the book so you know that a related word is discussed elsewhere. Also, if I use a word that's defined somewhere else in the book, I'll format it in small caps, like this: LEXICON.

    • Handling gender pronouns. I use gender throughout this book, particularly in the sample sentences. I have tried as far as possible to alternate gender, so that if one sentence uses a male example, the next uses a female example. Where no specific person is mentioned, I alternate he/him with she/her, which helps me avoid the generic they or weirdo constructions such as his/her or s/he.

    Finally, you'll see tons of extra tidbits called sidebars positioned on nearly every page. These asides are designed to supply you with extra information, tips, and cautions. Here's what you'll find:

    Sidebars used in the book

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