Beyond “Vocabulary Words”

The Richness of Words

One of the most prevalent places to shut down curiosity and wonder is with words, “vocabulary words,” to be specific. There is a tremendous richness to words that many people never encounter and it saddens me to think that they may never know the joys of recreationally playing with language.

Though we often think of words as static, unchanging things, they are alive in the sense that they are actually in flux, flowing and changing regularly. The changes are often slow, generationally slow, so that we tend not to notice unless we happen to enjoy keeping up with the latest style guides or grammar rules. But even then, there are slang words, regionalisms, alternative spellings, anagrams, etymologies, and other features that add richness to words that rarely get explored.

How about some fun: clue originally meant a ball of yarn, which is why we have expression like “unraveling clues;” myriad meant ten thousand of something, and awful meant something like worthy of awe. Words like color and honor are spelled colour and honour in the British world. Words like cleavefast, and clip are known as contronyms and can mean the opposite of themselves. 

Words change and evolve, they get strengthened or weakened, shift into different contexts, have prefixes and suffixes added, become hyphenated or chopped, get incorporated into phrases, get used ironically or sarcastically and then literally change meaning, shift pronunciations and much more. 



Anagrams are a very old form of recreational word play, seen as far back as the Roman Empire, and likely even farther. In Victorian England, Anagrams was the name of a word play game, and in more recent years we have the familiar games Scrabble and Bananagrams. Although there are different types of anagrams, “perfect” anagrams are the ones to strive for. They are hard to discover and, therefore, most satisfying when found. The most famous anagrams are perfect because they use all of the letters and even describe or define the original word. 

The words listen and silent are anagrams, and they form a wonderful pair together. Angered and enrageduse the same letters and I often think about what other letters might form such close synonyms. Many of us know that stressed backwards is desserts, and in a different opposite pairing, creation and reaction are anagrams. Probably my favorite anagram is one from Lewis Carroll that combines letters and numbers: eleven plus two has the exact same letters as twelve plus one

So why use anagrams in the classroom? It’s simple: anagrams are creative, fun and engaging and can be used in any subject area because they revolve around words. Teach your students what an anagram is and tell them to try anagramming their names, their friends’ names, their pets’ names and more, and you will be amazed at how engaged the students suddenly become. They will laugh as they discover humorous words hidden in various names; they will marvel as they make new and thoughtful connections; and they will begin to appreciate the patterns inherent in the language. 

  • To promote critical and creative thinking across the curriculum.
  • To broaden understandings of nearly anything.
  • To practice spelling and/or vocabulary words in a fun, engaging way.
  • To encourage recreational wordplay.
  • To generate creative ideas within words, names, titles, and/or phrases.


“Words of Interest” and Degree of Familiarity

Not all words are equally familiar, complex or interesting, even the so-called vocabulary words. When we read, we may encounter a few words for the very first time, recognize some as partially familiar, and feel very comfortable with the others. It’s the unfamiliar words that are usually pulled out as vocabulary words, but there are other reasons to investigate words. Take a look at the following seven words and score them from 1 to 10 on how familiar you are with them, and then also score them from 1 to 10 on how well you think you know what they mean. So, two scores for each word. Then try writing a definition for each word.

  1. Decimate
  2. Penultimate
  3. Poetry
  4. Poisonous
  5. Hiraeth
  6. Love
  7. The


What did you notice about these seven words? You’re likely very familiar with poetry and the, but how would you define them? What about the word decimate? It means to destroy something, right? Yet notice the prefix deci- and the word actually becomes more interesting because it originally meant to destroy one-tenth of something! How about penultimate? What does the prefix pen- mean in front of ultimate? Less familiar? How about hiraeth? Likely it’s a new word. 

How about love? What was your definition? Does your definition feel equal to the word? It’s tremendously difficult to define something that is based on deep and intense feelings, isn’t it? Perhaps this is where poetry comes into the picture as an artform that attempts to define the indefinable. 

Lastly, how about the word poisonous? It’s likely not a “vocabulary word” for you, meaning it’s not a word that you might get curious about anymore. So defining it to yourself as a vocabulary word means that you most likely won’t investigate it further. With that in mind: What’s the difference between poisonous and venomous? Did you know that almost all spiders and snakes, for example, are not poisonous; they’re venomous. The difference is that venom is delivered through bites and stings. Poisonous might not be a “vocabulary word” for you, but it can always be a “word of interest,” a word that you are still curious and open-minded about.

The point here is not to test your vocabulary but to try to demonstrate fairly quickly that words are interesting in various ways beyond being just "vocabulary" words, and can still be meaningfully explored even when we have a fairly high degree of familiarity. 

  • Redefine “vocabulary words” as “words of interest.”
  • Don’t assume you or anyone else fully knows what a word means in its entire scope and range.
  • Understand that there’s a lot to appreciate about words.
  • Help students explore words in different ways.
  • Have fun and enjoy!


Image by Gerd Altmann - Pixabay


creative thinking, learning, teaching

You may also like

The Slow Speed of Thought

The Slow Speed of Thought

What Can Stop an Idea?

What Can Stop an Idea?
Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked

  1. When I was a kid I loved reading the dictionary. My dad required me to keep a vocabulary notebook with me while reading to note any words I didn’t know the meaning of. You have reignited my curiosity and inspired me to investigate new and exciting words to add to my writing giving a dash of spiciness to the comfortably overused ones.

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

Schedule a FREE 15-Minute Consultation