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22nd May
written by Steph
Quick question for all my fellow readers out there (while I go about finishing up some reading so I can post some new content): what do you do when you're reading along happily and you're thrown for a lexical loop?  By which I mean, you come across a word that you don't know!  Horror of horrors, I know!  Do you: a) try to divine on your own what the word means? b) pause to look the word up right away? c) jot it down on a pad for later investigation, so as to leave the flow of your reading more or less uninterrupted? or d)  just barrel on through the confusion and continue with your reading, never to think on the word again...? I'm curious, because lately I've been reading things where I've been encountering unfamiliar words. I've used all of the tactics above, but none of them are all that satisfying for me.  I feel like it's a great opportunity for me to learn a new word, but more often than not, I look the word up right away, only to later forget what the word was and also what it meant.  I suppose this strategy is fine in terms of making sure I fully understand the slippery sentence I've just read, and it's not all that obtrusive (given online dictionaries, weird words can be looked up in seconds), but I feel like I'm missing out on the chance to expand my vocabulary AND it doesn't circumvent the need to look the word up again should I re-encounter it in the future.  If I jot the word down for later exploration, I'm stuck with not necessarily knowing the word in the context of what I've read (and my memory isn't so good that upon later looking the word up, I'll flash back to how it was used in the book, suddenly suffusing me with insight).  What's a girl to do? Tell me your tips and tricks for dealing with weird words and how you make them stick!


  1. Great question! What I do depends a lot on my mood and where I am reading. Most of the time you can sort of work out what the word means by its context in the sentence, but if I can’t and am at home I will normally look it up. I often don’t remember the meaning the next day, but there are some words which I end up looking up several times, and so now know! I never do c) as I don’t normally have a pen, but not a dictionary!!

  2. 05/22/2009

    You make a good point about the repeated lookups… sometimes you just need to look a certain word of two or three times before it finally sticks!

  3. 05/22/2009

    Interesting question. I almost always just let it go and move on. Like Jackie, I’ve found that I can usually work it out form context. If I can’t, I usually find that not understanding one word probably won’t keep me from understanding the book, so I move on. Putting the book down and going to look it up doesn’t seem worth it, since I’m likely to forget the meaning by the next day. I like learning new words and all, but if I encounter an unfamiliar word often enough, it’ll sink in. If I don’t, I can probably do without it anyway 🙂

  4. 05/22/2009

    Ha! I also just take it in context. I’m too lazy to get the pc and look it up. Usually when I’m reading a book, the computer is turned off. Sometimes I would jot it down on my notebook, but that rarely happens now. I don’t remember the last time I did it. Did you encounter a lot of them in 2666? 😀

  5. 05/22/2009

    @ Teresa: You make a good point that if a word is quite obtuse it may not be all the useful to look it up and integrate it into your vocabulary, especially if you’re not encountering it frequently! If it’s that uncommon, it’s probably best not to use it lest other people find you unclear!
    @ claire: I don’t recall finding the language unclear in 2666 – the dream sequences were a bit opaque at times (at least for me), but I understood all the words that were used. No, this stems in part from the Shriver, but also from another book I just finished with… which I’ll be posting about in the next day or two.

  6. taryn

    I think when i’m reading in English, i just guess at its meaning from the context. But if it’s a word that’s used quite often, or that is clearly very significant to the story, then i will look it up.

    When i’m reading in a different language, i tend to underline the words that i don’t know. I don’t look them up right away, though — i guess at their meaning from the context. Otherwise you break up your reading far too much as you scurry off to the dictionary every few paragraphs. But after i’ve read a good enough chunk (say, a chapter or whatnot), i will go back with a dictionary, look up the underlined words, and write either their meaning or a synonym in pencil in the margins. I believe this is possibly a technique i learned in French Lit class; certainly, you should not be stopping your reading to look up words.

    Let me know how this goes!

  7. 05/23/2009

    Ooh, I really like your idea! Of course, it hinges upon me actually having a pencil in hand while reading (or at least nearby), which I’ll need to work on, but I think that’s doable. I feel like writing down a synonym is a good idea, because then you can link it to something you already know (and the writing seems to help me consolidate information). I will try it and let you know how it goes!

  8. 05/27/2009

    I used to go look them up, but recently I have been just trying to find out what context the word is being used in, and leave it at that. If there are too many words that I don’t understand in one book, I get a bit discouraged, but I still continue to read the book. This is a really good question! I often wonder how other readers handle this.

  9. 05/27/2009

    I agree, it can be really disheartening to find yourself stumbling over words. I also find that it really prevents me from getting into a good reading groove, and I have a more difficult time connecting with what I’m reading. Normally I can brush off a weird word here or there, but when they happen every few pages (or multiple times on one page), it bugs me. Otherwise, I do tend to try to just figure out what it means from the context.

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