Of quarks and pottery and singing in disharmony


Ansbach’,  ‘bottomness’ (nothing to do with your backside!), ‘black sanctus’: any idea what these words mean? Neither do I, or at least I didn’t until they featured in the Oxford English Dictionary’s ‘word of the day’ (I consult the dictionary’s website regularly for professional reasons).

And that got me thinking – I work with the English language every day, I earn a living working with it and I tell my clients that vocabulary and syntax are often much more important than grammar when it comes to clearly expressing themselves in English. Shouldn´t I therefore be working on my own vocabulary, trying to improve it, to expand it?

But how does a person actually expand their vocabulary? Read through the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and test themselves on all the new words they’ve learnt? Not really my cup of tea, and not very effective either! And anyway, once you’ve learnt a load of new words, what do you actually do with them?

For me language is not just something to learn and to improve for its own sake. It’s a communication tool, a way of ensuring that we understand others and are in turn, understood by them. It’s a way of expressing what we think, feel and desire; what we loathe, believe and aspire. By expanding my vocabulary I want to be able to express myself better, more clearly and more interestingly. I want to be able to use words in a way that makes clear what they mean and what they express: not just a dictionary definition, but in a real, usable sentence.

So I set myself a challenge – once a week I’ll take one or more of the OED’s words of the day and try to use them in a coherent, explanatory and hopefully somewhat interesting blog post.

I’m not sure it’s going to work; as the words listed above show, the OED’s words of the day are, by definition, not every-day words and many of them are pretty obscure. Still, it’s worth a go and if I get stuck I can always sing a black sanctus (= a discord of harsh sounds to express dislike or contempt) and make myself, if not my neighbours, feel better!

Join me on this journey and let’s expand our vocabularies together!

(By the way, if you’re interested, ‘bottomness‘ is a word used in physics meaning ‘The characteristic flavour of bottom quarks and bottom antiquarks that distinguishes them from other particles,’ – not sure I’ll be using that one very often! ‘Ansbach‘ is the name of a type of pottery produced in Germany.)


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  1. Love it. My way of learning new words…. if I need to look up a word, I do so in a paper dictionary and mark the word with a big dot. Each time I use the dictionary I have to stop if I spot a dot and rer ad that one.

      • on 27/11/2016 at 08:03
      • Reply

      Like it! Though I suppose your dictionary is now covered in big dots!

    • Gerry on 26/11/2016 at 15:05
    • Reply

    On the whole, by and large, I agree with you, though using words and expressions that are largely unknown may seem elitist.

      • on 27/11/2016 at 08:06
      • Reply

      Surely not if I’m using them in an every-day sort of way? A good point though, what’s the point of learing to use words you know you’re never going to use (like bottomness)? I’ll keep this in mind when selecting other words to work on.

    • Gerry on 26/11/2016 at 15:10
    • Reply

    Some expressions belong in the museum of no-longer-used wordsbut i do believe that email has the affect of reducing vocabulary. Gerry

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