How To Raise Word Nerds

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Dictionary, unplugged. (crdotx’s flickr photostream)

When I tried to throw our dictionary out my oldest threw a fit.

This is a very old dictionary. It was owned by my Great Aunt Mildred. The book is huge, with indents along the side for each letter of the alphabet. It’s also not in good shape. Threads are hanging out of a nearly wrecked spine and the pages are yellowing. Until recently it sat on our living room trunk, ready to answer all inquiries. As my kids got older and Google got ever closer to our fingertips, I figured we didn’t need it. According to my son, I am wrong. He has more than a sentimental attachment. He knows what this book holds — the power to create word nerds.

Here’s how.

In part, we used the dictionary to settle disputes, which happened more often than you might imagine. I’d be happily snuggled on the couch reading aloud to my kids and run across a word new to them. I’d tell them what it meant but one of those little darlings would invariably question my expertise. Having a writer for a mother may make kids more feisty when it comes to words, I don’t know. They’d rush off to drag the huge volume back to the couch where I’d read the definition aloud. Then we’d wrangle over what the definition really meant. Maybe things are more peaceful at your house.

My kids also used the dictionary for games. Something about having that whale of a book right there in front of them inspired word play. Well, that and a few other factors like parental limits on electronic entertainment.

The games my kids played with the dictionary roughly fall into three categories.

Bet You Don’t Know This Word:   Sibling one-upmanship is rarely pretty, but I can overlook it when it’s a vocabulary builder. Simply open the dictionary, find a tough word, and challenge a sibling to define it. The kid with a finger on the word has to pronounce it correctly, otherwise the challenge doesn’t count. (This meant they’d run to me with pronunciation questions until they got a better grip on phonetic spelling.) Winner on either side may torture family with the word the rest of the day. Other family members should sigh in exasperation, but we know the more a word is used the more likely it is to be understood. Win for vocabulary expansion!

Guess the Right Definition:  There are better ways to play this but our made-up version is easiest. Find an esoteric or outdated word to use as a challenge. On the same page find another word with an entirely different (hopefully strange) definition. Or find two other words to make it harder. Read aloud the challenge word, then mix up the different potential definitions as they’re read aloud. Again, winner may torture the family with the word the rest of the day.

Blackbird:  This is my favorite. Think of a question (one that can’t be answered with a simple yes or no) and ask it aloud, like “Why is my hair curly?” or “Should we get a pet hamster?” Then open the dictionary at random and, without looking, put a finger on the page. Look at the word under your finger and read aloud its definitions. It may take some stretching (a nice use of reasoning powers) to make it fit as an answer, but it usually works. For example, my curly-haired child placed a finger on the word “law.” One of the definitions is “binding force or effect” and another is “regularity in natural occurrences.” That led to a nice discussion about genetics and hair. The hamster question led to the word “fury” which takes little effort to decode, especially when one definition is “angry or spiteful woman.” That would be me, faced with one more pet in this house.

  • So leave a (newer, sturdier) dictionary out in your house. Let your kids see you use it regularly. Help them use it and display interest as you do.
  • Play some word games when boredom hits. Need another? Pick three words at random and challenge your kids to make up a story or song or nonsense rhyme on the spot using those words. Yes, your turn is next using three words they pick. This works nicely in the car. Maybe you need a pocket dictionary in the glove compartment.
  • Tsk tsk a little when they look up “bad” words (otherwise it’s no fun for them).
  • Act as if it’s completely normal when your nine-year-old describes a problem as a predicamentimpasse, paradox,or quandary.

If you choose to allow a dictionary to assume this power in your family, I have one warning. Dictionary silliness will lead to language savvy. If your kids use a lot of obscure words in their everyday discourse they’ll need a droll sense of humor, the better to handle their flummoxed peers.

Conduct Human Experiments of the Word Kind

bring back obscure words, get people to say strange words,

Human experimentation is banned unless the subjects are volunteers who have provided their informed consent. I believe the more casual research my son recently tried is exempt from those rules.

Let me explain.

Over the summer he worked with the grounds crew for a local park system. Being the sort who enjoys occupying his mind with more lively endeavors than weed whacking, he found other ways to keep himself amused. It may be helpful to point out that he and his siblings know many more words than they can pronounce. Their vocabularies are considered odd by others. Their dinner table discussions are, at best, eccentric. These tendencies can be almost entirely blamed one habit: avid reading.

He used this social liability as the basis for the human experimentation trials he conducted on his unwitting co-workers. The research took all summer. His subjects were not aware that they were part of the study until it was too late. The damage had been done. The results are now in. His experiment was a resounding success. I’m going to tell you how to conduct the same experiment.


You, the experimenter, can bring  nearly extinct words and phrases back into regular usage. (See, you’re providing a service to an endangered vocabulary.)


Employing an outmoded word or phrase on a daily basis will subtly promote its usefulness and stimulate others to add it to their ordinary lexicon. Yes, you get people to say funny words.


1. You will need subjects. Rely on people you see everyday. Your children, co-workers, neighbors, and friends are excellent victims candidates for your experiment. The more the merrier. If you want to get all science-y, choose a group of people you interact with separately from all other groups. They will form your experimental group, while everyone else in your life will be your control group.

2. You will need a word or phrase you think shouldn’t have fallen out of popular usage. My son chose “dagnabbit,” one of the many oddly amusing words his grandfather used without a hint of irony. (That was a rich well indeed. Other possibilities from my paternal line included “holy mackerel,” “jehoshaphat,”  and “tarnation.”)


This is a casual experiment, best done over a long period of time. Begin using your chosen word or phrase regularly but naturally in your conversation. Pay no obvious heed to the word as it is adopted by others.

If people make a fuss over your use of the word, you might choose to insist it is back in style. Or you might use the opportunity to expand the experiment by promoting those subjects to fellow experimenters. Explain what you are doing in the most noble terms possible, then implore the person use his or her own outdated word or phrase in daily conversation. You’re simply enlarging this Human Experiments of the Word Kind study, surely to enhance the world as we know it.


See how long it takes to firmly embed your word or phrase in other people’s regular discourse.


Have you gotten subjects to saying funny words? Then you’ve proven the hypothesis and done your part to save endangered terms. Another successful Human Experiment of the Word Kind!