Blog Excerpts

Bubble Vocabulary: Words You Ought to Know But Don't

A great challenge for anyone looking to improve their vocabulary is identifying the words they don't know. For many of us, this is huge, familiar territory filled with words we think we should know, or we think we might know, or we can feel on the tip of our tongue, or we are pretty sure we know a part of...but when push comes to shove we cannot define.

Slate contributor and Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World author Seth Stevenson gave the phenomenon a name: "Bubble vocabulary: the words you almost know, sometimes use, but are secretly unsure of." He writes:

We’ve all experienced moments in which we brush up against the ceilings of our personal lexicons. I call it “bubble vocabulary.” Words on the edge of your ken, whose definitions or pronunciations turn out to be just out of grasp as you reach for them. The words you basically know but, hmmm, on second thought, maybe haven’t yet mastered?

Stevenson goes on to serve up amusing mispronunciation and misuse stories from his own verbal adventures and those of other writers and editors, going so far as to create a fun 18-word quiz which we've turned into a word list: "Words Slate Editors Aren't Sure They Know."

But what is perhaps most striking about Stevenson's story is its emphasis on the shame of misusing or mispronouncing words. (Word-learner note: The distinction between shame and guilt is an interesting one. Recently, in "Raising a Moral Child," New York Times writer Adam Grant explained, "Shame is a negative judgment about the core self, which is devastating. …In contrast, guilt is a negative judgment about an action, which can be repaired by good behavior.")

Stevenson writes:

Is reaching for bubble vocabulary actually shameful? To our discredit, we do seem especially tempted to stretch our linguistic wings in the middle of a job interview, an all-staff meeting, a college seminar, or a radio segment. These are, not coincidentally, occasions when we might wish to appear a smidge more erudite than we really are. (Bubble vocab alert! Is that “air-yuh-dite” or “er-oo-dite”?)

But if our impulse to employ words that we don’t quite know is a bit peacocky, I don’t think we should feel chagrined when we’re cut down to size. Excessive abashment when our vocab goes wrong is, in my view, counterproductive. It has a chilling effect. We become reluctant to reach for the verbal brass ring the next time an opportunity comes along.

And that is a loss to us all. Juicy vocabulary words are a hoot. They are one of the great pleasures of conversation. They are to be applauded and savored. We shouldn’t hesitate to draw them from our quivers, even if we may occasionally miss our targets.Granted, your star-making, debut close-up on the nightly news is perhaps not the ideal moment to pull a shaky vocab word out of your back pocket. But otherwise, let your freak gonfalon fly.

And "What should we do if we hear someone else incorrectly attempt a sesquipedalian mot juste?" Stevenson finally asks.

I side with the Slate copy editor who offers this wisdom, gleaned from an occasion on which he mispronounced risible as “rise-able”: “I was corrected in the very best way possible: quickly and reflexively by the corrector, without judgment, like an executioner with a sharp, dispassionate blade.” I further concur with his addendum: “The worst is when no one corrects you! Because then they are silently judging you instead of treating you as they would a friend.”

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