Not to brag, but it’s rare that I need to look words up. It’s not that I know a lot of words; I’m just pretty good at figuring out definitions from context. Honestly, it’s probably the reason I did well in school and was able to develop a talent for reading comprehension. I also get a nerdy thrill out of guessing word definitions and getting it right.
Last week, however, I met my match.
I read a collection by David Foster Wallace, an essayist and novelist who was huge in the 1990s and 2000s. He’s got an astounding vocabulary—enough that I actually stopped using Google to look up new words and downloaded the official Merriam-Webster Dictionary to find official definitions.
Here are some of the great new words I picked up last week. Use them to impress your friends! Or, I guess, make them hate you—at some point, you’re just showing off.
Probity (noun): adherence to the highest principles and ideals; uprightness. Probity is a great, all-purpose word that implies deeper character than just “integrity.” Adherence to the highest principles doesn’t just mean honest, which I appreciate.
Herpetic (adjective): the adjectival form of “herpes,” which is just a fun word to have in your pocket. It actually means “looks like herpes,” which more literally means “inflamed and covered in clusters of vesicles.”
Prandial (adjective): of or relating to a meal. Finally! A word that describes whether an outing included food. “Will this be a prandial outing?” just sounds less mercenary and gluttonous than asking “Are we eating or what?”
Psephologist (noun): a scientist who studies elections. With the midterms only barely leaving the news cycle, this word is more relevant than ever. Fun fact: this word’s origins come from the Greek word for pebble (psephos), which was how the ancient Greeks voted. This one wins Word of the Week, an honor I only just now made up.
Cupidity (noun): an inordinate desire for wealth; also, strong desire or lust. This has Middle English written all over it (which is why I like it). It’s a testament to how words evolve that cupidity, named for the god of love, would no longer mean romantic lust, but lust for wealth. Turns out it made more sense when applied to greed than sex.
In all seriousness, learning new words is important for more than showing off. I read there was once a language that only had a single word for every shade of red, and as a result, people who spoke that language were unable to perceive the difference between pink and scarlet. The words we use help shape the way we interact and interpret the world. If we learn words that describe the world we live in more clearly and more humanely, maybe we’ll be more clear and humane ourselves.