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How to improve your vocabulary

Last updated on: June 28, 2011 15:50 IST

How to improve your vocabulary


Sidharth Balakrishna

You may have ignored the spelling test examination back at school; however, if you are appearing for a competitive examination in the near future, you will realise the importance of knowing the meaning of a certain word or even using the appropriate words in a sentence. An alumnus of IIM Calcutta, Sidharth Balakrishna authors about how you can nurture that interest in you.

Candidates preparing for the Common Admissions Test (CAT) and other B-school entrance exams often struggle with vocabulary.

While the CAT does not test candidates on their knowledge of difficult words directly, other exams, especially the entrance test for FMS certainly do.

In addition, even for the CAT, a good vocabulary is important. This is because the passages and answer options given in the Reading Comprehension section may have some difficult words. Not knowing their meaning could decrease the candidate's ability to understand the passage.

Also, consider what may happen if you do not know the meaning of a word contained in one of the options: your ability to make the correct answer choice may be seriously compromised!

In this article, I shall put across an innovative way to remember the meanings of certain words. This is to know their origin. Quite a few words have an interesting origin, and there is a story, legend or myth associated with them.

A number of words come to us from Roman or Greek mythology. Very often, you may find that you remember the story more than the meaning per se-and that it is the story that helps you recall the meaning of the word itself.

Let us look at some such words:


1. Laconic

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We start with the word 'Laconic', which is derived from the name of a place, the ancient 'Laconia' in Greece. The inhabitants of this place were known to speak very little.

The word 'Laconic' therefore refers to one who uses few words, is concise and doesn't speak much. Synonyms are taciturn, pithy, terse; antonyms are garrulous, verbose, loquacious etc.

Now for the stories associated with this word. There is a famous example of the usage of this word. Philip of Macedon was supposed to have once written to the Spartans, "If I enter Laconia, I will level Lacedaemon to the ground". The Spartans, true to their style, chose to reply with a single word 'If'.

There is also a very interesting story about the former American President Calvin Coolidge, who was the President of the US in the 1920s.

Coolidge was known to be extremely frugal with words, which is best illustrated through this story. It is said that on a particular occasion, a young woman was sitting next to Coolidge at a dinner party.

She told him that she had placed a bet that she could get at least three words of conversation out of him. Without looking at her, Coolidge quietly retorted, "You lose." Only two words, and thus the lady had lost her bet!

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2. Spartan

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The next word is 'Spartan'. This also comes from Greece; Sparta was a Greek city-state in ancient times.

It was often at war especially during the Peloponnesian War with Athens, another city-state (and today's capital of Greece), where the famous Parthenon is situated.

As a result, the inhabitants of Sparta had to always be prepared for war and evolved to be extremely battle-ready, disciplined, tough and austere in their lifestyle.

In fact, Sparta is said to have been unique for its social system and constitution, which focused on military training and excellence.

The word 'Spartan' thus means 'austere', plain, frugal.

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3. Promethean

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From the names of places, we shall now look at a word derived from the name of a person: the word 'Promethean'.

This word comes from the Greek hero 'Prometheus'.

Prometheus was a great hero of mankind and known for his cleverness. He was given the task of becoming a virtual creator of mankind, by moulding people out of clay.

As may be imagined, his attempts angered the Gods, especially Zeus. This anger was further reinforced when Prometheus tricked the Gods -- during a sacrificial feast, he managed to get the best portions for man and the Gods were left with hardly anything.

He is also supposed to have stolen fire from the Gods and brought it for mankind's use. Fire was clearly of vital importance to ancient man.

Hence the word 'Promethean' means 'life-giving', creative, original.

The famous story of Prometheus can be found in the Greek tragedy called Prometheus Bound. In this drama, Prometheus' theft of fire and his punishment by Zeus are described.

Zeus is supposed to have punished Prometheus having him bound to a rock while a great eagle ate his liver every day; it would then grow back, only to be eaten again the next day. And so the cycle continued till the great hero Hercules is said to have finally released Prometheus from his ordeal.

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4. Tantalizing

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Heard of the word 'Tantalizing'? This has a really interesting story!

Tantalus was the son of the Greek God Zeus, who was punished by the gods for stealing ambrosia and nectar for his people and also for revealing the secrets of the Gods. He is also supposed to have offered human sacrifices.

Angered by his actions, the Gods thought of suitable punishment. Tantalus was put neck deep in water under some fruit trees with low branches, but could not drink any water or eat any fruit.

Whenever he bent down to drink, the water receded. Similarly, whenever he tried to reach the fruit which grew on the branches above him, the fruit slowly moved out of reach, raised up by the branches.

Thus the meaning of the word 'Tantalizing' as used today: it means 'enticing, but out of reach' or 'arousing interest or desire for something that remains unattainable'.

Author Sidharth Balakrishna is an alumnus of IIM Calcutta and author of An Introduction to CAT-Tips from an IIM Alumnus, Reading Comprehension for the CAT -- A Winning Approach by an IIM Alumnus and Marketing Case Studies. Besides having done corporate stints, he is also a Visiting Faculty and admissions interview panelist at a number of b-schools.

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