October 16 is the birthday of American teacher and lexicographer, Noah Webster, which consequentially makes it Dictionary Day. Now, I will admit that looking up words in the dictionary is a great way to improve your vocabulary. Unfortunately, the dictionary can make for some dry reading, which is why most of the words I’ve learned have come from novels I have read. Sometimes I can figure them out from context clues, but others require some help from Mr. Webster. Here is a list of words I have learned from reading.
Impunity | /imˈpyo͞onədē/ | noun
I learned this word from Edgar Alan Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado, which I remember reading in the 7th Mr. Webster would define impunity as “freedom from punishment, harm or loss.” Though, I wonder if we asked Montresor if he truly punished Fortunato with impunity what he would say.
Copse | /käps/ | noun
I’m embarrassed to say that I learned this word not that long ago when reading The Swiss Family Robinson, by Johann Wyss. A co-worker told me it was their favorite book growing up, so I decided to read it. I had seen the word in other books and glanced over it, always confusing it with the word corpse and so thought it meant a small graveyard. However, Mr. Webster would define copse as “a thicket of small trees or shrubs,” which makes more sense, especially when I read it in Tami Hoag’s Cold Cold Heart later that same month.
Chifferobe | /ˈshi-fə-ˌrōb/ | noun
No one will be surprised when I say I learned this word while reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, as this is what Mayella Ewell says she invited Tom Robinson in to bust up. But what is it? Webster would define a chifferobe as “a combination of wardrobe and a chest of drawers.”
Histrionics | /ˌhistrēˈänik/ | noun
Strangely enough I didn’t encounter this word until I was reading Arthur Hailey’s The Evening News. Since that time, I have read it in other books and even heard it used in a movie. Webster defines histrionic as “behavior that is too emotional or dramatic.” I immediately assumed that this word was related to hysterical, but after playing word detective (one of my favorite pastimes) I discovered the words are from different roots, and histrionics is more drama queen adjacent, while hysterical is when your emotions are so strong you have no control over your behavior, which is why Harry Partridge’s editor yells, “Stop the histrionics,” instead of “Stop being hysterical.”
Antipathy | /anˈtēpəTHē/ | noun
I had read this word in many books, but always translated it in my mind as “apathy.” Nothing could be further from the truth, I learned while reading Tess of the d’Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy. The moment I read about the antipathy Tess felt toward Alec, I knew I had the definition wrong. Mr. Webster defines antipathy as “a strong feeling of dislike,” which is completely opposite of the definition of apathy and makes much more sense in the case of Tess and Alec.
I have learned other words while reading, such as convivial and defenestrate, and though I can’t remember where I read all of the words I’ve learned, the words have stuck with me, increasing my vocabulary and sometimes making me look smarter than I really am.
So, what about you: what words have you learned through reading?
(If there are any words on this blog you don’t know the meaning of, I think Mr. Webster would tell you to—look them up.)