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What Words To Learn First?

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By Garland Greever & Joseph M. Bachelor

What, then, is your first task? Somebody has laid down the injunction-- and, as always when anything is enjoined, others have given it currency--that each day you should learn two new words. So be it,--but which two?

The first two in the dictionary, or hitherto left untouched in your systematic conquest of the dictionary? The first two you hear spoken? The first two that stare at you from casual, everyday print? The first two you can ferret from some technical jargon, some special department of human interest or endeavor? In any of these ways you may obey the behest of these mentors. But are not such ways arbitrary, haphazard? And suppose, after doing your daily stint, you should encounter a word it behooves you to know. What then? Are you to sulk, to withhold yourself from further exertion on the plea of a vocabulary-builder's eight-hour day?

To adopt any of the methods designated would be like resolving to invest in city lots and then buying properties as you encountered them, with no regard for expenditure, for value in general, or for special serviceability to you. Surely such procedure would be unbusinesslike. If you pay out good money, you meditate well whether that which you receive for it shall compensate you. Likewise if you devote time and effort to gaining ownership of words, you should exercise foresight in determining whether they will yield you commensurate returns.

What, then, is the principle upon which, at the outset, you should proceed? What better than to insure the possession of the words regarding which you know this already, that you need them and should make them yours?

The natural way, and the best, to begin is with an analysis of your own vocabulary. You are of course aware that of the enormous number of words contained in the dictionary relatively few are at your beck and bidding.

But probably you have made no attempt to ascertain the nature and extent of your actual linguistic resources. You should make an inventory of the stock on hand before sending in your order for additional goods.

You will speedily discover that your vocabulary embraces several distinct classes of words. Of these the first consists of those words which you have at your tongue's end--which you can summon without effort and use in your daily speech. They are old verbal friends. Numbered with them, to be sure, there may be few with senses and connotations you are ignorant of--friends of yours, let us say, with a reservation. Even these you may woo with a little care into uncurbed fraternal abandon. With the exception of these few, you know the words of the first class so well that without thinking about it at all you may rely upon their giving you, the moment you need them, their untempered, uttermost service. You need be at no further pains about them. They are yours already.

A second class of words is made up of those you speak on occasions either special or formal--occasions when you are trying, perhaps not to show off, but at least to put your best linguistic foot foremost. Some of them have a meaning you are not quite sure of; some of them seem too ostentatious for workaday purposes; some of them you might have been using but somehow have not. Words of this class are not your bosom friends. They are your speaking acquaintance, or perhaps a little better than that. You must convert them into friends, into prompt and staunch supporters in time of need. That is to say, you must put them into class one. In bringing about this change of footing, you yourself must make the advances. You must say, Go to, I will bear them in mind as I would a person I wished to cultivate.

When occasion rises, you must introduce them into your talk. You will feel a bit shy about it, for introductions are difficult to accomplish

gracefully; you will steal a furtive glance at your hearer perchance, and another at the word itself, as you would when first labeling a man "my friend Mr. Blank." But the embarrassment is momentary, and there is no other way. Assume a friendship if you have it not, and presently the friendship will be real. You must be steadfast in intention; for the words that have held aloof from you are many, and to unloose all at once on a single victim would well-nigh brand you criminal. But you will make sure headway, and will be conscious besides that no other class of words in the language will so well repay the mastering. For these are words you do use, and need to use more, and more freely--words your own experience stamps as valuable, if not indeed vital, to you.

The third class of words is made up of those you do not speak at all, but sometimes write. They are acquaintance one degree farther removed than those of the second class. Your task is to bring them into class two and thence into class one--that is, to introduce them into your more formal speech, and from this gradually into your everyday speech.

The fourth class of words is made up of those you recognize when you hear or read them, but yourself never employ. They are acquaintance of a very distant kind. You nod to them, let us say, and they to you; but there the intercourse ends. Obviously, they are not to be brought without considerable effort into a position of tried and trusted friendship. And shall we be absolutely honest?--some of them may not justify such assiduous care as their complete subjugation would call for. But even these you should make your feudal retainers. You should constrain them to membership in class three, and at your discretion in class two.

Apart from the words in class four, you will not to this point have made actual additions to your vocabulary. But you will have made your vocabulary infinitely more serviceable. You will be like a man with a host of friends where before, when his necessities were sorest, he found (along with some friends) many distant and timid acquaintance.

Outside the bounds of your present vocabulary altogether are the words you encounter but do not recognize, except (it may be) dimly and uncertainly. Some counselors would have you look up all such words in a dictionary. But the task would be irksome. Moreover those who prescribe it are loath to perform it themselves. Your own candid judgment in the matter is the safest guide. If the word is incidental rather than vital to the meaning of the passage that contains it, and if it gives promise of but rarely crossing your vision again, you should deign it no more than a civil glance. Plenty of ways will be left you to expend time wisely in the service of your vocabulary.

 


 

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