Vocabulary Building with Google

By: Mark Phillips, author of The Wizard of Oz Vocabulary Builder, The Pinocchio Intermediate Vocabulary Builder, and Vocabulary Dictionary and Workbook

You can use the search engine Google to build your vocabulary!

Most language experts say that to build a strong vocabulary, you need to read a lot of books. The problem with that advice is that if you have a weak vocabulary, you probably don’t enjoy reading—and you won’t follow the advice.

But here’s a simple two-step plan for building your vocabulary with Google:

1. Be on the lookout for unfamiliar words.

2. Enter the words in Google.

Let’s look at the first step in more detail. How do you find unfamiliar words? You pay attention to what you read and hear, and you don’t let an unfamiliar word go by. You might see a new word in a magazine, newspaper, or book. Or you might hear a new word in a song lyric, TV show, or movie.

An especially good place to find new words is in movie reviews. Even if you don’t like to read, if you like movies, you may be interested in reading short movie reviews online (or in newspapers). (For some reason, movie reviewers seem to like to use a lot of big words.) You can go to the Movie Review Query Engine website <www.mrque.com> and type in a movie you’re interested in. Dozens of reviews, from newspapers all over the country, will pop up. As an example, I entered (the 2007 film) Juno and chose the review from the Long Island newspaper Newsday. The review included the following SAT-type words: reputed, verbiage, dexterous, elfin, obscurantist, abetted, and beleaguered.

And an especially good place to hear new words is on cable TV political talk shows, such as Chris Matthews’ Hardball and Keith Olbermann’s Countdown (both on MSNBC). The hosts and guests often use words that may be unfamiliar to non-readers. For example, in a November 2007 installment of Countdown, within a couple of minutes Keith Olbermann used the words petulancy, invocations, sophistic, quell, sycophantic, and pillage.

Language experts also tell us that to truly learn a new word, you have to hear it in context and you have to be exposed to it multiple times. That’s where step two of the two-part plan comes in. With Google, you can see a word in context multiple times (hundreds of times, if you wish).

Let’s take one word from the Juno movie review and one from the Countdown TV show and try them out with Google. First we’ll look at the word beleaguered (bih-LEE-guhrd) from the movie review.  The reviewer, John Anderson, wrote, “In one of the more hilarious scenes, Juno breaks the news to her father and stepmother that she’s having her baby, and giving it up. Their response is a classic of beleaguered parenthood.”

Go to Google, type in beleaguered, and hit Return (Enter). Search results appear, and at the top right corner of the screen it says something like “Results 1–10 of about 2,490,000 for beleaguered [definition].” Google found over two millions usages of the word beleaguered, and it’s telling you that you can click on the word “definition” in that phrase to see dictionary and thesaurus definitions of the word beleaguered.

Go ahead and click on “definition” to see what the word means. You’re taken to the website Answers.com and you see the following definitions for beleaguer:

(From American Heritage Dictionary)

1. To harass; beset: We are beleaguered by problems.

2. To surround with troops; besiege.

(From Houghton Mifflin Thesaurus)

1. To trouble persistently from or as if from all sides.

2. To disturb by repeated attacks.

3. To surround with hostile troops.

By the way, here’s how I explained the word in my Wizard of Oz Vocabulary Builder and Vocabulary Dictionary and Workbook:

If someone (or something) is beleaguered, he’s filled with (or plagued or harassed by) troubles, worries, problems, annoyances, etc.

Now go back to the Google search results page to see the word used in context multiple times. Within the search results, the word appears in bold type (because that’s the search term you entered), so it’s easy to spot. Look for appearances of the word in the search result descriptions rather than the headings, because that’s where you’re most likely to see the word used in context in an actual sentence.

Here are some of the results I found:

Mr. Bush placed an early morning telephone call to his beleaguered attorney general [Alberto Gonzales] to offer him “a very strong vote of confidence.”

After a year of criticism of her leadership and spending practices, the beleaguered president of Chicago State University has told her colleagues she plans to step down.

Beleaguered Iraqis now fear their own security forces more than the insurgents.

Poor, beleaguered German polar bear Knut; he was rejected by his mother when he was born, and now zoologists are describing him as a “psychopath.”

By the way, here’s the illustrative sentence I chose for my Wizard of Oz Vocabulary Builder and Vocabulary Dictionary and Workbook:

In 1974, amid accusations that he’d obstructed justice (in the Watergate cover-up), abused presidential powers, illegally bombed Cambodia (in 1969), and used public funds to improve his private property, a beleaguered President Richard Nixon resigned from office.

After seeing the word beleaguered used in context multiple times, you really know what it means.

Now let’s look at a word from the TV show Countdown—the word quell (kwel). Keith Olbermann, speaking of the acting assistant attorney general who had himself waterboarded (made to feel as if he was drowning) to determine whether the technique constituted torture, said, “He could not stop the terror screaming from inside of him, could not quell the horror.”

Go to Google and enter quell. In the top right corner it says something like: “Results 1–10 of about 14,300,000 for quell [definition].” (Over fourteen million occurrences!) Click on the word “definition” and you get this:

(From American Heritage Dictionary)

1. To put down forcibly; suppress: Police quelled the riot.

2. To pacify; quiet: finally quelled the children's fears.

(From Houghton Mifflin Thesaurus)

To bring to an end forcibly as if by imposing a heavy weight.

By the way, here’s how I explained the word in my Wizard of Oz Vocabulary Builder and Vocabulary Dictionary and Workbook:

When you quell an unpleasant emotion (fear, anxiety, worry, etc.), you quiet or calm it. When you quell a disturbance (a disorder, revolt, mutiny, etc.), you put it down forcibly; you suppress it.

Now go back to the Google search results and look for quell in sentences. Here are some results I found:

Yahoo set to report earnings and possibly quell layoff rumors.

American troops were desperately needed to quell the insurgency there.

Condoleezza Rice tries to quell staff dissent over forced duty in Iraq.

American troops trying to quell ethnic clashes in northern Iraq came under fire on Sunday night.

By the way, here’s the illustrative sentence I chose for my Wizard of Oz Vocabulary Builder and Vocabulary Dictionary and Workbook:

In May 1970 at Kent State University, Ohio National Guardsmen, trying to quell an anti–Vietnam War demonstration, shot and killed four students.

By now you should have a complete understanding of the words beleaguered and quell. Now get out there and watch out for new words in movie reviews and political TV talk shows—or anywhere else! Type them into Google, check the definition, and then read at least five sentences using the word. You’ll build your vocabulary the right way—repeatedly seeing the word used in context—without having to read a lot of books!

Author bio:

Mark Phillips has taught at Northwestern University, has worked as an editor in the publishing field for more than 30 years, and is the author of nine books. For the reference value of his numerous publications, he is profiled in Who’s Who in America.

URL: www.vocabularybuilders.com

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