Post by Jenny
I was poking around Slate.com the other day when the term ‘bubble vocabulary’ caught my eye. My first thought was of the speech bubbles used by cartoon characters and superheroes. But in reading Seth Stevenson’s article, I learned that bubble vocabulary is “the words you almost know, sometimes use, but are secretly unsure of.”
Fun fact: I have more bubble words than Don Ho and Lawrence Welk combined. (If you don’t know who those guys are, feel free to phone a friend. And if you don’t know what that means, you’re way out of my league.) When I write, I try to heed Stephen King’s warning that any word plucked from a thesaurus is the wrong word. But when I talk, I secretly aspire to be one of those loquacious folks who confidently wields a show-stopping vocabulary.
This is not necessarily a good choice for me, a lifetime awkward speaker who stumbles over even garden variety words. Just the thought of trying to work something like chthonic into conversation throws me into panic. The moment before I open my mouth, I’ll start second-guessing myself. Is that ch really silent? Maybe it’s pronounced ch-thon-ic or ka-thon-ic, and I’m about to sound like an idiot. My internal use-it-or-not struggle continues until I have such brain freeze I couldn’t tell you my middle name if you asked.
Uncomfortable silence ensues.
After reading the article, though, I feel much better, because I’m not the only one who experiences these “bubble vocab fails.” Far from it. For many of us, the memories of these embarrassing fails linger for years. And years. (Every time I hear the word papyrus, I remember pronouncing it as pap-rus instead of puh-pie-rus. I was barely out of high school.) Even David Foster Wallace, who in his too-short life probably used every word that’s ever been conceived, admitted to once pronouncing façade as ‘fakade.’
If you’re in the same boat, take heart. Stevenson points out that great words are fun to use, and we should use them, even if it means occasionally blowing it by misusing, or mispronouncing, them. Unlike breakdancing and deciphering menus in dark restaurants, vocabulary skills improve with age, so dust off your favorite challenging words and put them to good use.
Do you have any bubble words? Please share in a comment.
(To read the Slate article and take their bubble vocab quiz, click here.)