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11 Fun Word Lists to Drill Your Vocabulary On

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I was feeling pretty smug about my big, nerdy vocabulary when I tried out the word challenge at Vocabulary.com, but it didn’t take long for the game to find my weak spots. That’s because it quickly adapts to your level and learns to predict what words you don’t know. There’s also an app version you can take around with you, which is good, because while there are lots of ways to kill time on your phone while waiting in line, this one actually pays off in words learned. In the past few days I’ve gained osculate, litotes, and flagitious.

You can customize by choosing particular word lists to work on, and while many of the lists are organized around sober, practical topics—SAT prep, current events, historical documents, great books—there are a number of lists that are just plain word fun. Here are 11 of the best themed lists from Vocabulary.com for you to master, or just enjoy.

1. Words from Shakespearean insults

Knave, sere, dissembling, scorn…cut down your rivals with Elizabethan flair.

2. Words for frustrating situations

Vex, dumbfound, stupefy, perplex…develop a more engaging way to describe your bad day.

3. Words from '70s songs

If your example sentences come from The Clash (feckless), Warren Zevon (fray), or Stevie Wonder (dissipate), you might remember them better.

4. Words for ways of walking

There are so many ways to get around. Do you amble, careen, falter, somnambulate…?

5. Words from Latin cadere, to fall

A bunch of lists are organized around words that relate to a particular Latin root. Can you see how falling relates to casualty, deciduous, and catapult? It might help you learn them.

6. Words with prefix con- (together)

Grouping words with the same prefix can also help them stick. Look for the togetherness in concerted, conciliatory, concurrently…

7. Words related to Minecraft

Can’t get your 8-year-old to study? Try example sentences like this one, for “access”: “A portal is the only way to access the Nether and its contents.”

8. Words from dialogue written by Harold Ramis

Or maybe you’ve got a Ghostbusters fan who would do better with movie quotes from Harold Ramis. Rational: “Sorry, Venkman. I’m terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought.”

9. Words from Stephen Sondheim lyrics

You can get a lot out of the Sondheim songbook: précis, abstention, apse…

10. Words for writing about cheese 

They picked out the good ones from a New York Times article about cheese: rustic, earthy, dulcet…

11. Words pirates might like to say

At first it’s not clear what these words have to do with pirates. Arbitrary? Artichoke? Then you realize they are words pirates might like to say. Focus on that first syllable. Draw it out a little. Draw it out a little more—now you’re ready for Talk Like a Pirate Day!

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How New Words Become Mainstream
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If you used the words jeggings, muggle, or binge-watch in a sentence 30 years ago, you would have likely been met with stares of confusion. But today these words are common enough to hold spots in the Oxford English Dictionary. Such lingo is a sign that English, as well as any other modern language, is constantly evolving. But the path a word takes to enter the general lexicon isn’t always a straightforward one.

In the video below, TED-Ed lays out how some new words become part of our everyday speech while others fade into obscurity. Some words used by English speakers are borrowed from other languages, like mosquito (Spanish), avatar (Sanskrit), and prairie (French). Other “new” words are actually old ones that have developed different meanings over time. Nice, for example, used to only mean silly, foolish, or ignorant, and meat was used as blanket term to describe any solid food given to livestock.

The internet alone is responsible for a whole new section of our vocabulary, but even the words most exclusive to the web aren’t always original. For instance, the word meme was first used by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene.

To learn more about the true origins of the words we use on a regular basis, check out the full story from TED-Ed below.

[h/t TED-Ed]

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The Evolution of "Two" in the Indo-European Language Family
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The Indo-European language family includes most of the languages of Europe as well as many languages in Asia. There is a long research tradition that has shown, though careful historical comparison, that languages spanning a huge linguistic and geographical range, from French to Greek to Russian to Hindi to Persian, are all related to each other and sprung from a common source, Proto-Indo-European. One of the techniques for studying the relationship of the different languages to each other is to look at the similarities between individual words and work out the sound changes that led from one language to the next.

This diagram, submitted to Reddit by user IronChestplate1, shows the word for two in various Indo-European languages. (The “proto” versions, marked with an asterisk, are hypothesized forms, built by working backward from historical evidence.) The languages cluster around certain common features, but the words are all strikingly similar, especially when you consider the words for two in languages outside the Indo-European family: iki (Turkish), èjì (Yoruba), ni (Japanese), kaksi (Finnish), etc. There are many possible forms two could take, but in this particular group of languages it is extremely limited. What are the chances of that happening by accident? Once you see it laid out like this, it doesn’t take much to put *dwóh and *dwóh together.

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