March is National Reading Month, but don’t worry. This article is not going to be about the big, blubbery virtues of Moby Dick or the nuances of Nicholas Nickleby. While reading “great books” is great, it can feel like a commitment that doesn’t jibe with modern life, fractured as it is into an unending barrage of tweets and screens and streams.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ever make time for epic novels or that reading isn’t important. Reading is how we encounter and learn new words, those things we use to communicate and get jobs and woo lovers and understand basically everything. Luckily for the busy, distracted reader, not all great writing is long. And there are tools that will help new words stick in our brains that also fit into our device-centric lives.
“It’s important, especially for students, to know that vocabulary is something that is living, that is constantly all around them, that literacy doesn’t consist of a particular canon of books,” says Ben Zimmer, executive producer of Vocabulary.com, which debuted an addictive word-learning app for iPhones this week. “You can take any text, whether it’s a movie script or the lyrics of a song, and pull out the vocab words.”
So in honor of National Reading Month, and in recognition of modern attention spans, here are nine examples of things that are not big, important books and can be read in nine minutes or less (though some are admittedly pushing the average word-per-minute rates). Along with each excerpt is a worthy vocab word with context from Vocabulary.com, which aims to explain words like a good teacher would.
“A woman’s scream rose above the bedlam and suddenly a lovely, dark-haired girl was in Walter Mitty’s arms. The District Attorney struck at her savagely. Without rising from his chair, Mitty let the man have it on the point of the chin. “You miserable cur!” . . . ‘Puppy biscuit,’ said Walter Mitty. He stopped walking and the buildings of Waterbury rose up out of the misty courtroom and surrounded him again. A woman who was passing laughed. ‘He said “Puppy biscuit,”’ she said to her companion. ‘That man said ‘Puppy biscuit’ to himself.’”
bedlam (n.): a scene of madness, chaos or great confusion. The term bedlam comes from the name of a hospital in London, “Saint Mary of Bethlehem,” which was devoted to treating the mentally ill in the 1400s. Over time, the pronunciation of “Bethlehem” morphed into bedlam and the term came to be applied to any situation where pandemonium prevails.
2. Song lyrics: “Hurricane,” by Bob Dylan and Jacques Levy, a protest song about the imprisonment of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter
hurricane (n.): a severe tropical storm with high winds and heavy rain. When a hurricane comes through your town, you should board up the windows and stay inside. Hurricanes have sustained winds that rotate in a circle, which is why they are often referred to as cyclones.
3. A list of rules: The Art of Courtly Love, by Andreas Cappelanus, contains this set of rules about love, dating to the 12th century
avarice (n.): avarice is a fancy word for good old-fashioned greed. Do you want more and more money? Or cookies? Or anything? Then your heart is full of avarice. When people talk about greed, it’s clearly not a good thing, but avarice has an even worse flavor to it.
4. An essay: “The Peace The Bomb,” written by author James Agee at the end of World War II
pyrrhic (adj): Use the adjective pyrrhic to describe a victory that is won, but at too great a cost. The word pyrrhic comes from the Greek general, Pyrrhus, who defeated the Romans at the Battle of Asculum but lost so many troops that he couldn’t defeat Rome itself.
5. A children’s poem: “Sick,” by Shel Silverstein, chronicles a young lady’s attempt to get out of going to school, with a surprising ending
gash (n.): a gash is a deep cut, like a gash on your knee from a biking accident, or a gash in the earth caused by workers who are digging up a broken sewer. The noun gash describes a wound or cut, so it makes sense that as a verb, gash describes the act of making that wound or cut.
6. An adult’s poem: “Their Lonely Betters,” a poem by W.H. Auden from 1950, explains why people talk and plants do not
responsibility (n): responsibility is something you’re required to do as an upstanding member of a community. Responsibility comes from the Latin responsus, which means “to respond.” It can be another word for trustworthiness, and it can be used to describe the social force that motivates us to take on individual responsibilities.
7. Lessons: For years, Esquire has been asking great people what they have learned and summing up their wisdom, like a 2011 piece investigating the mind of George Clooney
export (v.): to export something is to move it from its current location to a different territory. The verb export comes from the Latin word exportare which means “to carry out” or “send away.” To export something is to move it across borders.
8. A commencement speech: Author David Foster Wallace, now deceased, gave a speech to the graduating class of Kenyon College in 2005
prosperous (adj.): If you have a new car and some flashy new shoes, then you could be described as prosperous, meaning you have material success that seems like it will continue to grow. The adjective prosperous often describes a person or a person’s future, but it can apply to anything that’s experiencing growth and success. Prosperous derives from the Latin word prosperus, meaning “doing well.”
9. A children’s book: Oh, The Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss lays out the somewhat brighter outlook for the future
dexterous (adj): If you’re dexterous, you’re good with your hands, but it can mean any skillful or clever physical movement. A kid’s dexterous ball handling and footwork can aid him on the soccer field. Dexterous can also be used to describe mental skill and agility — like the dexterous handling of an uncomfortable situation at work.
Or, perhaps, the dexterous handling leading a busy life and plugging in the little holes with great bits of reading.
Update: In addition to being an approachable dictionary and quiz machine, Vocabulary.com puts together lists of words to learn, based on everything from Don Draper lines in Mad Men to Lou Reed lyrics to historical documents. And now added to that is a list based on this very article.
This is an edition of Wednesday Words, a weekly feature on language. For the previous post, click here.