It’s all greek to me—how to build vocabulary from the ground up

academics English ESL

Roots to Memorize

A meritorious lexicon is imperative for perspicacity. Or, in plain English, a good vocabulary is important for understanding things. It helps you in your education and your career—and, for our immediate purposes, on standardized tests.

But it can be tricky to memorize a slew of words you don’t understand, especially if you don’t see or hear them all that often. When’s the last time you said to a friend that something seemed, say, “diaphanous,” “multifarious,” or “truculent”? Beyond reading widely and memorizing flashcards with fancy words on them before bed each night, what can you do to increase your vocabulary? 

Focus on the Root Words

Fear not, neophytes: a key way to grow your vocabulary is to focus on the building blocks of a word—in other words, learning vocabulary from the bottom up. About 60 percent of English words are derived from Latin or Greek. Learning a word’s “root” can help you begin to see patterns across groups of words and understand how words are made. Think of roots as the basic ingredients of words.

Root Words in Practice

The easiest way to understand this is through an example. So let’s look at the word fortuitous.  Already know what that means? Lucky you! (Get it?) For those who haven’t yet committed this word to memory, fortuitous means “by chance,” and these days it usually has a positive connotation. It implies a lucky accident, as in, “It was so fortuitous to encounter an ice cream truck at the very moment I was craving a banana split!”

Fortuitous comes from the Latin word fortuitus, meaning “chance.” (Fortuna was the Roman goddess of luck.) Other words in this family include fortune, misfortune, and fortunate. Once you learn this connection, you’ll have an easier time recalling the definition of fortuitous. It will stick in your memory even more if you can attach a story to the word (like that it’s named after the goddess Fortuna).

Take another example: the Greek word khronos, which means “time.” You might already be able to guess some of the words that derive from this root: chronological (relating to time), chronic (lasting a long time), or chronicle (a series of events over time). So when you’re answering a multiple choice question and you see a word you don’t know that has the “chron-” root, you should start thinking about time. (It’s a standardized test, so that’s probably already on your mind.) For example, a chronometer is a device that measures time, and an anachronism is something that belongs to a different time.

You can also add multiple parts together to decode altogether new words. For example, once you know that the Greek root sun means “together”—and that in English, it became syn—then you can immediately recognize that synchronous means “happening at the same time.”  

The Power of Foreign Languages

I’ve experienced the power of Greek when it comes to expanding my own vocabulary. The year after I graduated from college, I picked up and moved to Athens, the capital of Greece, and started learning Modern Greek. Just as the building blocks of civilization were all around me, so were the building blocks of English. I learned, for example, that helios meant “sun,” which gave me a flashback to a biology professor teaching me about “heliotropic plants” (plants that turn toward the sun).

Even if you aren’t studying Greek or Latin, you can still beef up your knowledge of root words in two ways. First, you can study lists of common Latin and Greek root words. (Here’s one to get you started.) Second, you can study a Romance language, such as Spanish, Portuguese, French, or Italian. Even more directly than English, these languages are built on Latin and Greek. In English, we have “hands,” whereas the French have “les mains.” Knowing that fact may help you when you run into amanuensis—a relatively obscure word used for a person who takes dictation or copies manuscripts. You’ll have a hint that it has something to do with hands, and you won’t even need to know that the Latin word for “hand” is manus.

The Bottom Line

  1. When you encounter a new vocabulary word, do some research about its roots. Where does this word come from?
  2. Don’t just learn words, learn roots. Find other words with a similar root, and learn words in families.
  3. Use your knowledge of a foreign language to help you group words.


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