4 Fun Ways To Build An Extremely Impressive Vocabulary

Good Will Hunting / Amazon.com.
Good Will Hunting / Amazon.com.
I like to think I have a decent vocabulary; I’m no William Shakespeare, but I probably know more than the 20,000 words “they” estimate most people graduate college with. But I didn’t learn them in some stodgy university from an aging know-it-all: I learned my unusual words playing Dungeons & Dragons, Scrabble, reading H. P. Lovecraft, and from other children. Here’s a bit of insight into how it happened and what (perhaps) it all means… By source!

1. DUNGEONS & DRAGONS.

Even though Wizards of the Coast (makers of Magic: The Gathering) purchased and defanged this Satanic role-playing classic, I still pine a bit when I pass the D&D rack at the bookstore. The new version appears to be a fucking board game, but the old TSR Dungeons & Dragons fantasy role-playing game brought a great deal of intrigue and sophistication to my fourth-grade experience.

The game was nothing more than a bunch of girlish pre-adolescents huddled around indecipherably complex “character sheets” playing with dice and shrieking, but I was ape for it. As a consequence, I read and reread various rulebooks ad infinitum (including the infamous Demons & Devils [or something] supplement in which they talk about making sacrifices to Baal and show a bunch of awesome pentagram drawings).

I’d love to recount some “funny” things I read in those books, but the language and topics are so exclusionary and specific it would be impossible for a non-player to understand, at least without spending pages explaining the jargon. For example, is there anything humorous about the number of non-player character retainers a twentieth-level dwarf can command? Nevertheless, I did learn a few words I could use in the mundane world. Here’re some of them:

Comeliness.
In Dungeons & Dragons, as in life, one’s traits are expressed as numerical values between three and eighteen. The higher the value, the more likely one’s character is to successfully perform feats based on that trait — for example, a character with a high strength score is more likely to be able to lift a boulder or win a wrestling match than one with a low score. There are only a handful of traits for each character, measuring intelligence, charisma, and so forth. Comeliness, which essentially means attractiveness, is not acknowledged as a quantifiable trait in the rulebooks, but my friends and I devised a means to measure it: we averaged our characters’ strength and charisma scores and called the result “comeliness.” (This method may have been cribbed from Dragon magazine. It’s comforting to know the adult virgins at Dragon feel that an attractive man is — and is only — “strong and persuasive.” What do they use this to justify?) My friends and I used our comeliness scores to determine if our characters would be able to “screw” imaginary women in the game. If memory serves, we spent a lot of time talking about this.

Paladin.
A paladin, of course, is a knight, or a noble defender. In Dungeons & Dragons, a paladin is a spellcasting fighter of some kind who abides by a strict moral code. The actual definition is of little importance, since I (for years) stressed the second syllable (puh-lad-in) when pronouncing this word, ensuring that I sounded like an imbecile regardless as to the context. Years later, after I’d abandoned D&D for Molotov cocktails and firecrackers, I became aware of Paladin Press’s wonderful offerings, like Bazooka: How to Build Your Own, by Anthony Lewis. It was only luck that this phase happened to coincide with the big internet build-up of the early nineties, so I was able to order books like Mr. Lewis’ online, without saying the word “paladin” over the phone, thus saving myself from the indignity of mispronouncing something OR having to prove I wasn’t a minor.

Paragon and Polymath.
A paragon is a model of excellence (or a large pearl) and a polymath is a person with great knowledge of many subjects (like Thomas Jefferson). In Dungeons and Dragons, becoming a paragon or a polymath is a way to achieve immortality, thus necessitating the purchase and use of yet another set of rulebooks.

Terse.
I didn’t learn this wonderful word (meaning brief) by playing Dungeons & Dragons; I learned it from direct, handwritten correspondence with Dungeons & Dragons’ creator, Gary Gygax. Unfortunately, I did not write Mr. Gygax to challenge some peccadillo in a rulebook — I chose him to receive the “Person I Most Admire” letter my fifth-grade teacher demanded I write. His reply came months later, long after the project was over. He decorated the odd-sized envelope which contained his reply with some kind of glittery Hobbit stamp, and inside he wrote a line or two apologizing for the terseness of his reply. I’ve always felt guilty about the incident because I actually wanted to write Vanilla Ice but was unable to find his address.

2. SCRABBLE.

Alfred Mosher Butts’ 1938 creation, Scrabble, is played in 29 languages in over one hundred countries, but for me, there is only one version: American English. I’ve spent a great deal of time playing Scrabble informally (as opposed to club or tournament play) and I’ve learned a thing or two in the process. There are a lot of words in our language most people don’t bother using. Some of these words are very useful in Scrabble. Some of them, like those that follow, are useful in real life… And I know them! For example, how about:

Aa.
Aa is pronounced “ah ah” (like the caption in a Garfield cartoon) and refers to the rough basaltic lava one occasionally finds here or there. It exists, of course, in contrast to pahoehoe, the smooth lava. A lot of people mix those two up. The word is useful in Scrabble as a rack-clearer when one has too many As; it’s also a good way to build next to a word with a lot of As in it. Solid gold!

Praxis.
My best friend David dropped this one on me once (with the X on a triple-letter bonus square) during a late-night game at a Denny’s in Dale City, Virginia. I was so ignorant I challenged it, and lost. Praxis, as a word, is awesome because it means practice (like, as in “in practice”, vs. “in theory”) and sounds like Damon Wayans in character as Anton Jackson (from the old In Living Color sketches) saying “practice.”

Suq.
Those of you privileged enough to have visited distant Arabian lands will recognize “suq” as a derivation of “suk,” the traditional market in those places. “Suq,” as a Scrabble word, appears somewhat formidable, but it’s actually a lot less useful than one would think: if it’s the best word you can spell with an S, a U, and a Q, you should perhaps consider playing (ugh) Upwords instead. I personally won’t play an S unless I’m dropping all seven tiles, but I doubt that means much to any of you.

3. H. P. LOVECRAFT.

Like many things I cherish (punk rock, Dalton Trumbo, the Roland JC-120), I was introduced to H.P. Lovecraft’s stories and abysmal poetry through Metallica, specifically “The Thing That Should Not Be” on Master of Puppets and “The Call of Ktulu” on Ride the Lightning. While I’d probably heard the name mentioned in connection to Steven King or Reanimator, I wasn’t motivated to seek out Lovecraft’s weird fiction until it earned Metallica’s seal of approval.

I have a hard time believing James, Kurt, Lars, or Cliff ever actually read the guy’s fiction, though. It’s a pain in the ass to get through. Lovecraft’s style isn’t exactly conversational, but it’s full of great outdated spellings (“esquimo”) and unusual adjectives. Here are three great ones:

Cyclopean.
Rather than “one-eyed,” Cyclopean means “large,” referring (I assume) to the size of the Cyclopes. DON’T FUCK THAT UP. I find it odd that a word derived from the name of a mythical creature whose most prominent feature is its single eye would mean “giant,” but I don’t write the dictionary, do I? To me, “cyclopean” should refer to those rare unfortunates born with a single eye in the middle of their foreheads, a genetic catastrophe usually accompanied by scrambled internal organs and cataclysmic retardation (a relative once told me that in the fifties, doctors would KILL babies born like that). “Cyclopean” can also refer to structures constructed from enormous stones and joined without mortar.

Nefandous.
Nefandous, meaning “unspeakable,” is so unusual that Microsoft Word’s spellchecker does not recognize it and instead suggests “meandrous” (meaning “meandering” or “rambling”) or “infamous.” It’s a shame that such a fantastic word is so obscure, but I suppose one is rarely called upon to produce a synonym for “unspeakable.”

Rugose.
To me, “rugose” is the H.P. Lovecraft word, and the first one that sent me running for my dictionary. It means “wrinkled” or “ridged.” Apparently, rugose is more of a term from botany, but when I hear it I usually picture one of those dogs with wrinkly faces. As a result, Lovecraft’s horrible monsters rarely seem that frightening to me; I just picture towering, otherworldly Shar-Peis giving staid, one-dimensional New Englanders grief — which doesn’t seem so bad, does it?

4. OTHER CHILDREN.

As a childless bachelor, I see youth through a rosy lens and perhaps without memory of the anxieties and unpleasantness that were surely present at the time. I do fondly recall learning new words from a few of my peers, such as:

Faggot.
A “faggot” is an alternate spelling of “fagot,” a bundle of sticks or twigs bound together as fuel. To my peers in grade school, it was merely an insult unconnected with its original meaning or more common usage meaning: a male homosexual. In high school, my well-meaning but overzealous punker buddies — precursors of today’s social justice warriors, I suppose — took it upon themselves to chastise anyone who used the word in earshot, leading to my hearing many tedious lectures about how calling someone a faggot is actually a death threat, since “the church” apparently used to burn homosexuals alive (a dubious assertion, since the pejorative usage isn’t etymologically related to the other one). Of course, it isn’t reasonable to expect the Dale City chapter of “Anti-Racist Action” to include a house linguist, is it? Of course, I also recall this word being used to refer to skinny, bookish boys who played Dungeons & Dragons or Scrabble, read H.P. Lovecraft, or bragged to the world about their vocabularies. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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