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Danger Jane
07-29-2008, 02:17 AM
Okay, I'll admit it, I'm one of those people who uses words other people don't know in everyday conversation. Don't mean to be. Just am. Unfortunately, when people ask me, "What does that mean?" I can barely explain it, and not because I don't know...because I just don't think of words that way. At best, I looked it up once and can recite the definition. Or maybe I can think of some close synonyms. But often enough, I just can't explain myself. I don't think of words in terms of other words, even though I know how to use them properly.

Is this common? Can you never explain what a word means when people ask?

alleycat
07-29-2008, 02:25 AM
I can usually give someone a rough idea of what I'm talking about if I use something they don't understand. Most of the time when something like that happens, I'm more surprised that the person doesn't know the word or phrase or reference.

I'll use something like "eclectic" and someone will ask "electric what?" Maybe it's my accent. ;-)

geardrops
07-29-2008, 02:54 AM
Try to use a different word for it, a simpler word.

ME: I don't really like this. It's kind of ostentatious.

SOMEONE: Austin Tayshus?

ME: Er... flashy. Gaudy.

But yes, there are times when I can't explain a word for balls.

stormie
07-29-2008, 03:04 AM
Okay, you should see the look on some people's faces when I use the word "exacerbate." Interesting! But in that case, I can give the definition. I have to, or people will exclude me from all conversation from then on.

But yeah, there are times when it's hard to give the definition. Ever notice in a dictionary they'll give synonyms instead?

Danger Jane
07-29-2008, 03:17 AM
I do try to give more common synonyms. Just very often, I can't think of one, not one that is close enough to work. Of course, when writing, I can usually think of enough synonyms to make my head ache with every other word. I just have a very hard time defining words, and when someone puts me on the spot with a word I thought everyone knew, my brain empties out on the spot.

I think I must categorize words weirdly. I have synesthesia, and I seem to categorize just about EVERYTHING based on a "feeling", sometimes with an accompanying color. I guess it makes extra connections between a word and a close synonym or something?

Anyway, I've been thinking on this for a while now, so it's interesting to see what other people have to say.

JoNightshade
07-29-2008, 03:22 AM
I'm the same way, Danger Jane. I just know which words fit where and it's very difficult to give a definition. For me, it's all about context. Often I won't "know" what a word means at all, but I will know what context to use it in. So if someone asks me "what does X mean?' I'll go totally blank, but if I see it in a paragraph, I totally get it. And I'll use it when I'm writing and the appropriate time comes up.

So when I try to explain words to people, I'll try to think of another context, or perhaps a little story that illustrates the use of the word.

And yeah, I'm one of those people who uses words like "navigable" in daily conversation (that's the most recent example).

JeanneTGC
07-29-2008, 03:50 AM
The Dictionary, DJ, is your friend. Buy a really good one and whenever you hit a word you "know but don't know", look it up.

I was surprised to find that "bemused" didn't mean what I'd thought it meant, for example.

alleycat
07-29-2008, 03:53 AM
I do try to give more common synonyms. Just very often, I can't think of one, not one that is close enough to work.
Maybe you could act it out . . . like charades! ;-)

stormie
07-29-2008, 04:06 AM
Maybe you could act it out . . . like charades! ;-)
:roll:

Danger Jane
07-29-2008, 04:10 AM
The Dictionary, DJ, is your friend. Buy a really good one and whenever you hit a word you "know but don't know", look it up.

I was surprised to find that "bemused" didn't mean what I'd thought it meant, for example.

I should probably write them down, yea. I mean, words really do mean what I think they mean (if they don't, nobody seems to correct me), and if I'm uncertain whether I'm using it wrong, I look it up, but it'd be nice to not have to say, "I dunno, I can't really say," when people ask me, "What's that word mean?"

Charades is also a good option :D

kuwisdelu
07-29-2008, 04:30 AM
I do that all the time.

Actually, when asked what a word means, I often resort to charades.

I also do the exact opposite, sometimes: I won't be able to think of a word at all--so I'll resort to charades and clumsy hand motions and ask people "what's the word...that means this....with the thing....when you know....??"

And sometimes I take it further and think of a word that seems appropriate just by the sound, don't even know what it means, don't even know if it's a real word, so I'll look it up to find that it is. Once in a while it isn't a real word, but sometimes I'll use it anyway. ;)

Albedo
07-29-2008, 04:36 AM
My spoken vocabulary seems to expand to the size of my written vocabulary when I'm drunk. However, my diction declines pretty rapidly past that point, so it's no good for impressing people with... :D

Quossum
07-29-2008, 05:11 AM
I'm the opposite and *can* explain what words mean. But then, I get a lot of practice as I have to do so often in front of a classroom of 8th graders. I try to explain in terms of how the emotional content of a word makes it differ from similar words.

"Pensive? It means something like 'thoughtful,' but there's a connotation there of being in really deep thought, almost sort of dreamy, maybe a little bit sad."

I'm bad about not knowing how to properly pronounce words that I know the meanings of good and well. Comes from seeing them in print far and away more often than hearing them spoken.

--Q

NicoleMD
07-29-2008, 05:57 AM
Say "What do I look like, a dictionary?" and then storm off.

Clair Dickson
07-29-2008, 06:02 AM
To be honest, with some folks, I don't really worry about how close I am to the meaning of the word-- I come up with the best definition or synonym. With many of the people I talk to (like many of my motivationally challenged students) they don't really care. They want to know something, so I'll tell them 'it's like x, only more so or less so'. And they go back to texting on their phones. (Think I'm exagerrating, come sit in my classroom ;-)

Oberon
07-29-2008, 06:20 AM
My mother, in her youth, read a lot but sometimes,never having heard words spoken, made some boo-boos. When someone asked how the newlyweds looked when they returned from a long journey, she said, "They were a little bed raggled."

stormie
07-29-2008, 09:15 PM
My mother, in her youth, read a lot but sometimes,never having heard words spoken, made some boo-boos. When someone asked how the newlyweds looked when they returned from a long journey, she said, "They were a little bed raggled."
Oh, cute! My mother only spoke Italian until she went to school. She learned English, read a lot too, but also mispronounced words.

tehuti88
07-29-2008, 09:40 PM
This happens to me at times, especially since I tend to use some of the flashier words when something simpler might suffice. I don't do it to impress people, really, because it would just seem to confuse them. It never occurs to me that the word might not be understandable because it's just the word my brain finds suitable. I can usually explain what they mean, but on the whole it's not a process I think about consciously that much.

Me: "I would have to acclimate myself to it!"

Dad: "You mean you'd have to get used to it."

Me on another occasion: "A few raindrops do not constitute a storm!"

Grandma: "This is why we don't talk much, I don't understand half the words coming out of your mouth!"

:o

Danger Jane
07-29-2008, 10:35 PM
I have been known to completely mispronounce a word or ten in my day, too. I might have never heard anyone else say it, but it's the right word NOW, dammit!

Just remembered an awesome Virginia Woolf quote: "Words do not live in dictionaries, they live in the mind."

She was talking about how a word means so much beyond its dictionary definition, because every word is colored by all its past uses, and some words conjure near-universal associations just because of one famous phrase. I bet if you walk up to somebody and say, "To be," their response will be something along the lines of, "Or not to be."

(Unless they think you're nuts....)

jannawrites
07-29-2008, 10:46 PM
Count me in, too.


I don't think of words in terms of other words, even though I know how to use them properly.

Some instances are better than others for me, but often I'm lefting grasping for a "clearer" way to describe what I'm talking about. My brain just goes to moosh. When I do adequately explain myself I rejoice! :D

ETA: This is a perfect, priceless example. My five-year-old daughter just.now asked, "What does cowabunga mean?" Ah... um... hmm... My first thought was cool or awesome, but somehow that lacks a certain something...

Danger Jane
07-29-2008, 10:53 PM
Count me in, too.



Some instances are better than others for me, but often I'm lefting grasping for a "clearer" way to describe what I'm talking about. My brain just goes to moosh. When I do adequately explain myself I rejoice! :D

ETA: This is a perfect, priceless example. My five-year-old daughter just.now asked, "What does cowabunga mean?" Ah... um... hmm... My first thought was cool or awesome, but somehow that lacks a certain something...

Right. It's so hard to settle, you know? Words are themselves. I'm always shocked when I pull a dictionary-style definition out of the archives.

When I read that about "cowabunga", the first thought I had was that it means WOOOOOOOOOOOOH! YEEEEEEA!

Yea, like I'm gonna explain THAT one in the mall parking lot.

jannawrites
07-30-2008, 12:01 AM
I guess being a mom sets me up for lots of instances... I was just remembering another circumstance. My oldest daughter (the same one) asked what an exclamation point meant. *shrugs* I told her it was like saying, "I really mean it!" So, a few days later, she noticed my bottle of Dr Pepper claimed to have 20! important ingredients (or whatever). And aloud she said, "Twenty, I really mean it!"

*snicker*

Phaeal
07-30-2008, 12:40 AM
Heh, I mostly get people when I point out plants or animals by their taxonomical names. Like the other day, when I forgot the common name for Hesperis matronalis (Dame's Rocket is one), but I did remember Hesperis matronalis.

Sometimes I just do it for fun: "What's your favorite animal?" "Oh, Ophiophagus hannah, obviously." ;)

BlueTexas
07-30-2008, 07:56 AM
Right. It's so hard to settle, you know? Words are themselves. I'm always shocked when I pull a dictionary-style definition out of the archives.



"Words are themselves" is the best way I've ever heard that concept articulated. Thank you! I've been searching for that phrase forever.

I have the same problem as everyone else in this thread, too. I'm forever using the word 'almost' to define whatever word someone else doesn't understand. Maddening!

Danger Jane
07-30-2008, 08:09 AM
"Words are themselves" is the best way I've ever heard that concept articulated. Thank you! I've been searching for that phrase forever.

I have the same problem as everyone else in this thread, too. I'm forever using the word 'almost' to define whatever word someone else doesn't understand. Maddening!

It's pretty remarkable how instantly we can determine this precise meaning of a word, I think--so quickly that we almost never realize we're doing it. And that makes it tough for us to say exactly what that word means, because of all the contextual meanings and connotations they pick up over the years.

Anyone read The Golden Compass? Well, to those who have--it's like Lyra and the Alethiometer. She sees the symbols it points to and intuitively understands which meaning each symbol means, of the thousands of possibilities, based on the emphasis on it and the surrounding symbols. Except her skill with the Alethiometer is unheard of, and all of us are fluent in one language or another.

Quossum
07-31-2008, 01:59 AM
Heh, I mostly get people when I point out plants or animals by their taxonomical names. Like the other day, when I forgot the common name for Hesperis matronalis (Dame's Rocket is one), but I did remember Hesperis matronalis.

Sometimes I just do it for fun: "What's your favorite animal?" "Oh, Ophiophagus hannah, obviously." ;)

Yay! I annoy people who mention dolphins by asking if it was a Stenella or a Tursiops.

Annoying event from my Coastal Plant Ecology class: There were all these various weeds that we had to know by genus and species, some of them very tricky. Ever try to distinguish Distichlis spicata from Sporobolus virginicus, especially when there are no seed heads present? However, there was one species that *everyone* knew on sight: Lemna, or duckweed, those little round green dots that float on top of ponds. Only duckweed looks like duckweed, and the word Lemna is pretty easy to remember.

So, on test day, we're all walking out on the coastline, and the prof is pointing to plants and saying, "What is that?" and we're getting on our hands and knees, if necessary, and peering at it, and writing down the names.

She approaches a pond covered with duckweed, and a wave of relief sweeps through the group, as we're all thinking, Hey, we're gonna get ONE right! Prof gestures and says, "What's that stuff on top?"

Who knows if her tone was somehow different than it had been previously, or if this student suffered a brain fart of massive proportions and forgot where he was, or what, but one student said aloud, "That's Lemna, isn't it?"

Groans of agony as the prof said, "Uh...yeah. Something else for number six, then..."

The guy apologized profusely to the group, but the damage was done. Many glares was he awarded.

--Q

darrtwish
07-31-2008, 04:35 AM
It happens all the time to me. I thought I was the only one, guess not. Being like that earned me the nicknames of "walking dictionary" and "walking encyclopedia" in elementry school :|

stormie
07-31-2008, 05:11 AM
Or, you could be like me and ask for a dictionary and thesaurus for two of my Christmas presents. I did it in elementary school. I forget the age. And I got new ones a few years ago at Christmas.

maestrowork
07-31-2008, 05:31 AM
I'm in the Hemingway and Mark Twain camp -- I use only words any 8 graders would know.

Danger Jane
07-31-2008, 06:32 AM
I'm in the Hemingway and Mark Twain camp -- I use only words any 8 graders would know.

But--but--I'm pretty sure I did know them in 8th grade...:tongue


My writing almost always scores in the 2nd grade range for the Flesch-Kincaid test. Nice short words and everything. And then I open my mouth and...I just dunno what comes over me!

stormie
07-31-2008, 05:00 PM
My writing almost always scores in the 2nd grade range for the Flesch-Kinkaid test. Nice short words and everything. And then I open my mouth and...I just dunno what comes over me!
Okay, here's a question: Awhile ago I read that when writing for the adult market, we're supposed to aim (with our word usage, length of sentences, etc) for a certain grade level. Was it fifth grade? Seventh grade? Kindergarten?

kuwisdelu
07-31-2008, 07:52 PM
The problem with the Flesch-Kincaid method, though, is that it only takes number of syllables, words, and sentences into the calculation. There's no accounting for actual content. I have some stories that scored 3.2 grade and some stories that scored 13.1 grade, but I don't think they're really all that far apart as far as content goes. I try to write so everyone can understand me, but once in a while I do get accused of being too "scientific" and confusing. And some people love it.

Danger Jane
07-31-2008, 09:15 PM
Flesch-Kincaid is definitely a limited test, although I will admit my two-syllable words aren't the kind an eighth-grader wouldn't know. Or a fifth grader, probably. Content is an entirely different matter.

I don't remember how the FK grade level stacks up to the average adult novel, but the readability test that is out of 100, with a number closer to 100 theoretically indicting easier reading, usually gives me (writer of adult/YA fiction) somewhere above 92 consistently. Legal-type documents often score in the 50s or 60s--highly unreadable.

I think most people agree that FK is just a general measure, though, and I wouldn't get too bogged down with your score unless your betas are scratching their heads over your vocabulary and sentence stucture.

kuwisdelu
07-31-2008, 09:59 PM
I think I read somewhere tax law scored a -3 on the readability scale.

Yeah, "quantum," "photon," "spacetime," and "atom" are all two syllables, but apparently made one of my poems "too scientific" for one reader...

Although, I think I may have used "isochronal," "capillary," "chimera," "isotope," and "schizogenetic" in that poem, too. Or was that a different one? But I thought everyone knew those...

ETA: Now that I think about it, they were different poems... and the two syllable words are the ones that got the "too scientific" comment.

Danger Jane
07-31-2008, 10:05 PM
I think I read somewhere tax law scored a -3 on the readability scale.

Yeah, "quantum," "photon," "spacetime," and "atom" are all two syllables, but apparently made one of my poems "too scientific" for one reader...

Geez, what are they teaching in schools these days??

Good example of how FK is not particularly useful except in technical writing. Of course, if I scored a -3 (out of 100????) in my fiction I would be tearing my hair out.

It is interesting to compare formal writing, like a research paper, to a piece of fiction...while my paper hopefully takes less thought to grasp, it takes more words and syllables to get there, so it might be in the 80s/100, or maybe 5th grade level, whereas my fiction would be in the 90s and more like a grade 2--but I haven't spelled everything out the way I would in a formal paper.

Quossum
07-31-2008, 11:25 PM
Flesch-Kincaid is definitely a limited test, although I will admit my two-syllable words aren't the kind an eighth-grader wouldn't know.

Yes, and this gives us a devil of a time at school. We encourage the kids to read at or around their own reading level (tested, not their grade level!), trying to prevent both literary laziness and getting overwhelmed by books over their heads. But in reality, many "low" reading level books have a very mature "concept load" and are only appropriate for kids with high reading / maturity levels, even though technically those books are "too easy" for them. Arrgghhh!

Example: The Firm has a 4th grade reading level, by the measure we use. Only certain types of 8th graders, the types with insanely huge reading levels (like post-high school), even want to read that book, so I would always let them.

--Q

kuwisdelu
08-01-2008, 12:34 AM
Example: The Firm has a 4th grade reading level, by the measure we use. Only certain types of 8th graders, the types with insanely huge reading levels (like post-high school), even want to read that book, so I would always let them.

Even I wouldn't really want to read The Firm. But then, I'm not one for legal thrillers. One the other hand, I think Foucault's Pendulum is a great page-turner.

kuwisdelu
08-01-2008, 12:37 AM
Geez, what are they teaching in schools these days??

I think the fact that I'm a physics major and use abstract quantum mechanical theories as metaphors for everyday actions instead of the other way around tends to confuse people.