What does that mean, anyway?

As an elementary school student each Monday morning teacher assigned 10 new words...

As an elementary school student each Monday morning teacher assigned 10 new words, words we probably had heard or even read, but could not define. Our task was to look up each word’s meaning in a dictionary, then compose a sentence using that word in a way to demonstrate its meaning.

Completing the assignment to teacher’s satisfaction meant thumbing through a quality dictionary for a precise meaning that we ourselves understood, cudgeling our brains to come up with a sentence that clearly illustrated the meaning of the word to the most befuddled fellow student and recording that sentence with pencil or pen. All this writing we did in cursive before computers came along with the handy dandy Google feature.

Making the meaning clear required more than a three- or four-word sentence. A sentence could easily extend to three hand-written lines.

I burned a lot of coal oil studying by lamplight in my upstairs bedroom. I enjoyed the assignments. In adulthood, my favourite part of Reader’s Digest is The Power of Words. Out of 20 words with three choices of meanings for each, I might correctly identify 15. I gradually improved until I correctly identified all 20, though some might be lucky guesses.

Teacher’s method was a slow way to expand our vocabulary and for the most part it worked well, simultaneously giving us writing practise. But her method lacked one key component – something memorable to help us recall the word and its meaning months later. Consequently certain words eluded me for years. Every time I ran into them, I had to look up their meaning. Words like “reluctant”. Does a reluctant person want to do something or not? Or “desultory”. Took me forever to remember desultory meant skipping from this to that, for instance conversations that jump from one topic to another.

Since those classroom days the best I can do at building vocabulary is to check the meaning of any new word in an article or story.

Because today’s magazines – even the priciest – dumb down their language to rudimentary level, the most I can hope to meet is one new word in an entire New Yorker or New York Times article. Learning a new word is a high for me.

News reports of winter recreational mishaps have boosted my vocabulary by two words:

Around Christmas 2013 German Chancellor Merkel was holidaying in France when she broke her tailbone in a fall while skiing “off piste”. Off piste is skiing over ungroomed, off limits and possibly dangerous terrain. On piste refers to skiing within bounds on groomed slopes.

CBC’s January 11, 2015 report of three ice climbers missing in B.C. near Pemberton quoted Pemberton RCMP: “Shortly after the search started, three bodies were located approximately 300 metres below the main couloir at Joffre Peak.”

The report explained “a couloir is a steep narrow chute or gully on the side of a mountain.” Climbers use couloirs to ascend; experienced skiers with a death wish and generous life insurance for family ski down couloirs. The word “couloir” delights me with its precision. For almost fifty years I’ve driven past our local mountains with their many couloirs, broad and narrow, but only now have I learned their specific name.

Both “on piste” and “couloir” are terms that will linger in my mind longer than Merkel’s residual pain, even if the only skiing I ever did was as a teen falling facedown in our backyard after a snowstorm swooped drifts up and over our farm outhouse. Too bad my vocabulary is growing one mountain mishap at a time.