Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Reading-The Sine Qua Non (Part 1)

Much of your present vocabulary owes its existence to your past reading. Now, it is perfectly true that you learned your first few thousand words not by reading but by listening, pointing, asking questions, and repeating answers. You acquired this vocabulary mostly from your parents and older brothers and sisters. The words you learned were primarily concrete ones; “mother,” “baby,” “shoe,” “dog.”

Then a wonderful change occurred in your vocabulary building-you started reading. As soon as you began to read, you found yourself coming across unfamiliar words constantly, words you had never seen or heard or noticed before. Quite a few of these words were abstract ones, and you had no idea at all of what they meant. You didn’t look up these words in the dictionary, even after you knew how to use it . . . but you learned the words nevertheless. How? By observing the words over and over again, and by seeing them hundreds of times in context. At first, of course, you had only a vague idea of what these new words meant. Later, when you had seen them many times, often with implied definitions, you had a more exact concept of their meaning. Today, when you see words like “responsibility,” “violent,” or “imaginative,” you can easily give approximate dictionary definitions of them.

Yet in all likelihood no one ever defined these words for you. You never checked their meanings in a dictionary. You did not learn them from vocabulary quizzes. Instead you learned them from reading, with important help, perhaps, from hearing them used orally-and you learned them without even realizing you were doing so!

Let’s look now at some words you may not know. Can you define the words “mountebank,” “comstockery,” or “polizei”? These are uncommon words in English, and scarcely vital to the average man’s vocabulary; but you will have no trouble with “polizei” if you have studied German. However, if you are familiar with the writings of H. L. Mencken-whether you have studied German or not-I’ll bet you can define all three words. For these are three of Mencken’s favorites. They occur very frequently in his writing. 

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