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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lists to work on, and while many of the lists are organized around sober, practical topics—SAT prep, current events, historical documents, great books—there are a number of lists that are just plain word fun.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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Big Questions
Why Does Japan Have Blue Traffic Lights Instead of Green?
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In Japan, a game of Red Light, Green Light might be more like Red Light, Blue Light. Because of a linguistic quirk of Japanese, some of the country’s street lights feature "go" signals that are distinctly more blue than green, as Atlas Obscura alerts us, making the country an outlier in international road design.

Different languages refer to colors very differently. For instance, some languages, like Russian and Japanese, have different words for light blue and dark blue, treating them as two distinct colors. And some languages lump colors English speakers see as distinct together under the same umbrella, using the same word for green and blue, for instance. Again, Japanese is one of those languages. While there are now separate terms for blue and green, in Old Japanese, the word ao was used for both colors—what English-speaking scholars label grue.

In modern Japanese, ao refers to blue, while the word midori means green, but you can see the overlap culturally, including at traffic intersections. Officially, the “go” color in traffic lights is called ao, even though traffic lights used to be a regular green, Reader’s Digest says. This posed a linguistic conundrum: How can bureaucrats call the lights ao in official literature if they're really midori?

Since it was written in 1968, dozens of countries around the world have signed the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals, an international treaty aimed at standardizing traffic signals. Japan hasn’t signed (neither has the U.S.), but the country has nevertheless moved toward more internationalized signals.

They ended up splitting the difference between international law and linguists' outcry. Since 1973, the Japanese government has decreed that traffic lights should be green—but that they be the bluest shade of green. They can still qualify as ao, but they're also green enough to mean go to foreigners. But, as Atlas Obscura points out, when drivers take their licensing test, they have to go through a vision test that includes the ability to distinguish between red, yellow, and blue—not green.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Using Words Like 'Really' A Lot Could Mean You're Really Stressed
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Are you feeling really exhausted? Or have you noticed that it's incredibly hot out today?

If you recognize the adverbs above as appearing frequently in your own speech, it could be a sign that you're stressed. At least, those are the findings in a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As Nature reports, researchers found that peppering our speech with "function words" is a pretty accurate indicator of our anxiety levels.

Function words differ from verbs and nouns in that they don't mean much on their own and mostly serve to clarify the words around them. Included in this group are pronouns, adverbs, and adjectives. A team of American researchers suspected that people use these words more frequently when they're stressed, so to test their hypothesis, they hooked up recording devices to 143 volunteers.

After transcribing and analyzing audio clips recorded periodically over the course of two days, the researchers compared subjects' speech patterns to the gene expressions of certain white blood cells in their bodies that are susceptible to stress. They found that people exhibiting the biological symptoms of stress talked less overall, but when they did speak up they were more likely to use words like really and incredibly.

They also preferred the pronouns me and mine over them and their, possibly indicating their self-absorbed world view when under pressure. The appearance of these trends predicted stress in the volunteers' genes more accurately than their own self-assessments. As study co-author Matthias Mehl told Nature, this could be a reason for doctors to "listen beyond the content" of the symptoms their patients report and pay greater attention "to the way it is expressed" in the future.

One reason function words are such a great indicator of stress is that we often insert them into our sentences unconsciously, while our choice of words like nouns and verbs is more deliberate. Anxiety isn't the only thing that influences our speech without us realizing it. Hearing ideas we agree with also has a way of shaping our syntax.

[h/t Nature]

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