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Improve Your Vocabulary: Everything I Need to Know I Learned Online

by Leigh Shulman Nov 19, 2009
Oxford University Press’ new Word of the Year: 2009 sparks for me adventure and excitement. Yeah, I’m a wordgeek. What of it?

I’M A TOTAL wordophile. Love word play, puns, love neologizing when the occasion permits – and it’s surprising how often it does.

So when I saw Oxford University Press’ latest blog post announcing their new word of the year, I was sucked in like Augustus Gloop up a glass chocolate pipe.

Yes, the word is out. Oxford University Press cites its New Word of 2009 as… drum roll please….


As in, I no longer want to be connected with you on any one of many social networking sites, but most specifically, Facebook.

The History of Dictionary

Samuel Johnson – scholar, literary critic and translator — wrote the very first dictionary. In spite of criticisms of him as an idiot from time to time, his dictionary stood as the foremost authority on the English language until the Oxford English Dictionary was published one hundred and fifty years later.

Alas, the ever changing nature of the English language drove him to distraction. No sooner could he capture a word on paper, the meaning, sense and usage would change. The English Language became his white whale — an allusion to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick — his never ending journey, and can in many ways be blamed for the depression and mental illness that plagued Samuel Johnson until his dying day.

Today Language Evolves With Much More Immediacy

I wonder what Samuel Johnson would do today with the internet, where you can literally watch language develop.

September 2008, Saturday Night Live put together a skit of a press conference with Sarah Palin and Hilary Clinton. It was fabulous. That night, I heard the word FLIRJ for the first time.

I immediately went online to research further, excited to learn more of this word I’d never before heard. And I thought I’d knew it all, in part due to my rather scholarly background in Literature and Creative writing, but mostly owing to the hours I’ve spent browsing certain sections of Craigslist then cross-referencing with Urban Dictionary.

Yes, my ever favorite Urban Dictionary. Where anyone can enter a word and definition which are then given thumbs up or thumbs down by anyone else who happens by. There you can find any word you could possibly want along with no fewer than three definitions.

FLIRJ was not there.

Wouldn’t you know, though, the next day it appears.

A Comparison Between The Erudite and the Troglodytic

I decided to compare other words from the OED to the UD to see what’s what.

OED says” a # [hash] sign added to a word or phrase that enables Twitter users to search for tweets (postings on the Twitter site) that contain similarly tagged items and view thematic sets.”

UD says “its a tag used to talk about an especif [sic] subject on twitter. Once all the users use it, it gets a lot easier to search subjects at the Twitter search.”

OED says “a person, who protests President Obama’s tax policies and stimulus package, often through local demonstrations known as “Tea Party” protests (in allusion to the Boston Tea Party of 1773)”

UD cites multiple meanings “1) one who carries large bags of packaged tea for shipment. 2) [ed.note: we all know what this one is. if not, please look it up yourself.] 3) one who has a job or talent that is low in social status 4) a person who is unaware that they have said or done something foolish, childlike, noobish, lame, or inconvenient.

FLIRJ, however, still has yet to enter the venerable OED.

Other Resources For Building A Stronger Vocabulary and Improving Your Knowledge Base helps me find words like troglodytic, erudite and the like, then allows me to switch into with one click so I can look up words I don’t know.

Ambrose Bierce, traveler and journalist, compiled his ever snarky – a word that certainly didn’t exist in his day and probably would have pissed him off if it had – The Devil’s Dictionary.

This includes definitions such as:

A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic.This dictionary, however, is a most useful work.

Once you’ve compiled your entire list of new, modified and self-generated words, you can compile them to create your very own dictionary in Word.

Then check into Mental Floss Magazine for a wealth of wordie – lover of words – articles such as The Nautical Roots of Nine Common phrases or Nine Tasty Foods Named After People.

Yes, we’ve come a long way since the days of Samuel Johnson and his white whale, a phrase I might add that is also included in Urban Dictionary. Although I’m sure Johnson never gave a moment’s thought to what it might mean to be moby-dicked.


Do you have a favorite new word or silly online source for the same? Let us know in comments.

When you’re finished exploring words and fun facts, it’s time for you to start writing. Start your own blog in Matador’s Travel community. Want some inspiration first? Check out 15 Punk Rock Travel Narratives or school yourself at MatadorU and learn the tips, trades and secrets of the best travel writers in the business.

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