Under the Hood

The science of vocabulary building

Do I Know You? Word Knowledge Limbo

For many, this is a nightmare scenario: You’re stepping onto a train or you're at the grocery store and you see someone you know. Or at least, someone you should know. But not only can’t you come up with their name, you can’t even remember who they are. A college friend? Your waiter from the restaurant where you just ate lunch? “Hey...Buddy!” you say, hoping the nickname's fake cheer masks the obviousness of your forgetting.

When you're playing the Challenge and encounter a word you believe you “should” know, but don’t, do you feel the same stress? “Hey...venerable!” you may say to yourself as you paw through inconclusive associations, feel a sense of rising panic, decide you are not cutting it as a vocabularian, and give up on the round.

Don't. You’d be better off relaxing and just taking a guess. If you guess wrong, read the blurb. (It will appear automatically on the right.) If you guess right, read the blurb anyway. (You can open it from the word list to the right of the question.) Spend a half a minute with the usage examples, check out multiple meanings, play around with the word family diagram.

Getting hung up on whether you "know" or "don't know" a word gets you nothing. And according to vocabulary education researchers, "knowing" and "not knowing" doesn't describe how we learn words anyway. Back in 1986, researchers who study the way people learn words pointed out that word knowledge is not a black and white proposition, but rather a spectrum that ranges from "I never saw it before" to "I’ve heard of it, but I don’t know what it means" to "I recognize it in context — it has something to do with..." to "I know it." “Vocabulary knowledge seems to grow gradually, moving from the first meaningful exposure to a word to a full and flexible knowledge,” writes vocabulary education researcher Steven A. Stahl in his pithy book Vocabulary Development.

So remember: no one surfs straight from “never saw it” to “know it.” Rather, there’s a limbo period where your knowledge of that word is hanging out somewhere around “I’ve heard of it” to “It has something to do with...." During that limbo time, you may feel that this is a word you "should" know, but don't sweat that feeling. Just bite the bullet, say, "How do I know you again?" and keep playing the game. 

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Comments from our users:

Monday March 19th 2012, 1:49 PM
Comment by: Yash D.
Exactly.. This is the practice I follow while learning words. Previously I used to be worried about the nitty grities but no more. I am using each and every means through this site in gaining my vocbulary.
Monday March 19th 2012, 4:35 PM
Comment by: Mark V.
Well said, building an extensive vocabulary like so many things in life takes an enduring, persistent effort.

I believe that if most people gave sufficient thought to the numerous benefits that come with adroitness in using language, they would be inclined to add vocabulary study to their daily rituals, as I'm sure so many of us do who frequent this wonderful site.
Tuesday March 20th 2012, 11:59 AM
Comment by: Himanshu S.
Awesome insight into secrets of memory functioning .I got answers to many questions that i was seeking for a long time.
Sunday March 25th 2012, 7:23 AM
Comment by: anna S. (South Africa)Top 10 Commenter
Indeed, afterall, should know =/= should understand.
Tuesday April 17th 2012, 8:35 PM
Comment by: sandy F.
Me too, I always feel bad that I have learn the word and its meaning and after a few days, I only realize that the fact that I have seen this word before but do not know what it means. I guess I am still in my limbo stage.
Tuesday May 15th 2012, 11:44 AM
Comment by: Claudia G.
Now, we are talking about my world - the world of "sort of" knowing

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