Words I Don’t Know

Why no!, not, in fact, a blank page, but rather a continuation of the theme of what I don’t know about English (though you can expect this to be a very short series of articles). Today I want to have a look at the last book I’ve read: Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut. Like most books I read, it was a second-hand copy from my favourite bookshop, and one of the previous owners had underlined a lot of words. I didn’t think too much of this at first: there are often handwritten notes and underlined sections in second-hand books. That’s part of the appeal of second-hand books: the feeling that they’ve already had a full life (it must have been some journey to get from S&S Books in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop in Galway, Ireland), and the knowledge that someone else got to appreciate them. This case was slightly different though, because there were just individual words underlined, and no notes in the margins. I soon realised that these words were underlined because the previous reader hadn’t understood them. How did I come to realise this? Because I didn’t know most of them either.


This didn’t feel too strange to me. Even though I’m a language nerd, and in the English-teaching industry, I always come across words I don’t know. As I know I mentioned in some other post, the Oxford English Dictionary contains 171,476 words that are currently in use. The average native-speaker adult has a vocabulary of between 20,000 and 35,000 words, so I guess I have a vocabulary of about 35,010 words. And that still leaves… lots of words that I don’t know. I’ve never felt that this was a problem. Usually when I come across a new word, it’s clear that it’s not one I need to know, or that it’s an obscure or archaic word (a nice example is the A Song of Ice and Fire books: so many new words to describe types of armour). And often I can figure out the meaning from the context (again, thanks to George R.R Martin, I now know that lobstered is an adjective to describe gauntlets, and it’s easy to picture what they look like).

But seeing those words underlined (and admiring the previous reader’s honesty with him/herself about what they didn’t know) made me reflect on how much I don’t know, and how much I should know. So here’s a selected list of those underlined words, with my thoughts, and whether I knew them or not, and if I could figure out their meaning:

  • Cantilevered: the first underlined word (on page 112: maybe it took my predecessor a while to admit to him/herself that they didn’t know some words). I know this one: it describes the way a bridge or terrace is supported, but I don’t know enough to get into the engineering specifics. I think it’s kind of like a seesaw though (*looks it up:* well, not really, but I’m right about it being a type of support). Not a common word though, so I wouldn’t expect the average person to know it.
  • Lattice: in the next line. I knew this one too (always make me thing of apple lattice pastries), but again, not such a common word.
  • Interstices: in the line after lattice. I knew this one too, but wasn’t as confident in my knowledge. It basically means gaps, and the context (the interstices of the lattice) made it clear. I definitely wouldn’t expect most people to know this word though, especially if they don’t know lattice.
  • Mitered: never heard of it. Here’s the context: Four square feet of gummy canvas, the four milled and mitered sticks of the stretcher, some tacks, too, and a cigar. Perhaps not very helpful, but I knew it must describe the style or shape of the sticks of the stretcher, and I didn’t look it up because I knew it wasn’t important to know exactly what the sticks looked like. Thinking about it now, I assume it must be related to a mitre, the hat the Pope or a bishop wears. Let’s look it up and see: nothing to do with hats at all! It describes a type of joint, often used to join two pipes: presumably it referred to the handles of the stretcher. It seems like Mr. Vonnegut had a penchant for engineering.
  • Ithyphallic: Never heard this one before, but it feels like one I could figure out. First, the context: The paintings were not of mammoths or saber-tooth tigers or ithyphallic cave bears. So it’s an adjective that could describe a cave bear. And phallic obviously has a clear meaning. So I’m guessing it might mean tall, or towering, you know, like a big phallus. The ithy- part has me stumped though. I can’t figure out where it could come from. Icthy- would refer to a fish, but what would an icthyphallic cave bear even look like? Right, time to look it up: ah, ithy- means erect, so I don’t need to draw you a picture of what ithyphallic means! It makes sense actually, picturing a bear standing tall, with its short legs spread apart. Very hairy though… Anyway, I wonder what the previous reader did after underlining that word. It was more than likely before the internet age (the copy is from 1963), and I can’t imagine finding ithyphallic in many dictionaries. I’m sure like me though, they had some idea of what it means.
  • Chivvied: not a clue, but clearly a past-simple regular verb, and from the context (I imagined what the taunters had been like, where Fate had eventually goosed and chivvied them to) I assumed it meant something like pushed or persuaded. Let’s see: kind of, it’s more like nagged, hounded, or badgered. See how useful context is? I was close enough.
  • Cetacean: easy! Related to whales or dolphins (and yes, porpoises too). Though maybe if I hadn’t seen Star Trek IV a few times as a younger man, with its repeated mentions of The Cetacean Institute, it wouldn’t have been so obvious.
  • Crenels and balistrariae: found in this pair of sentences: Antique cannons still lolled on the battlements. Vines and bird nests clogged the crenels, the machicolations, and the balistrariae. I knew I’d heard of crenels, or at least crenellations, and was pretty sure that crenels are the parts of a battlement that sticks up. But they’re not! They’re actually the spaces (interstices, if you will) in between. Balistrariae I didn’t know, but assumed they were also parts of battlements (they’re spaces for crossbows to fit through). What really amazed me though, was why this person hadn’t underlined machicolations! Had they really heard of that one!? (It’s the opening in ground over a gate which rocks or hot oil could be dropped, by the way, I’ve just checked). From now on I’m skipping any other words related to the minute details of engineering or architecture.
  • Oubliette: a dungeon like a simple basement, where people are simply abandoned, from the French oublier (to forget). No problem with that one, but again, not a common word.
  • Pilseners: clear from the context it’s a type of glass or cup, and I assumed it’s one for beer, as a Pils is a type of beer. I’m not going to look that up, I’m happy with my detective work on this one.
  • Petrescence: clear from the context, and the petr- part, that it refers to turning into stone. Petrification, basically. Why couldn’t you have used that word Kurt, instead of confusing your poor reader!?
  • Tholepin: context – the tholepin of an oarlock. Well, obviously part of an oarlock, that’s all I need to know!
  • Reticule: not a word that comes up a lot, but I’m pretty sure from playing video games that it’s like a crosshairs, just without the violent connotations. *looks it up* Well it is, but it’s also a small handbag and it’s clear from the context (Mother’s reticule!) that that’s what it means in the book. I should’ve looked that one up, I feel like I should’ve known that it didn’t make sense as crosshairs in the context. I’m a bit annoyed now. Next…
  • Peristalsis: I know this, it’s the scientific term for swallowing (or similar muscular contractions!) And it’s how earthworms move. Good, I needed a win after reticule
  • Peddiwinkus and veglia: clear from the context that they’re very obscure forms of torture – not something I’d expect myself to know.

And that’s everything. I don’t blame the reader for not knowing any of these, though I’m still a bit annoyed about reticule. At least I knew one meaning, but it didn’t make sense in the context. Did you know it means handbag? Looking back on those words though, it’s impressive how much one can understand something without knowing every word. Even though I didn’t know a lot of those words, it didn’t interrupt my reading flow. Either the meaning was clear from the context, or I didn’t know.

And that can be extended into language teaching. Of course you want a teacher to have a pretty good vocabulary, but apart from teaching at the highest levels, a teacher doesn’t really need to know a lot of obscure words. And even if you’re teaching an advanced or even proficiency class, you can check your materials beforehand and make sure you know them all. What’s more important, is the ability to explain words, or help students to figure out what they mean (and I think the latter is more important, as it’s more interesting for the students and makes things more memorable). And engaging students in the lesson is also very important. In fact, a teacher could even get away with not having the greatest ability to explain things, if they can get students interested in the lessons, and therefore the language.

And taking things back to the real world, if I had to choose between having a large vocabulary, and being able to figure out the meanings of words, I’d choose the latter. Though it’s a skill we all have, though not everyone puts it to the best use they can. So if you ever come across a word you don’t understand, don’t worry. You’re not alone, and there’s a good chance you’ll be able to figure it out from the context, and learn a new word. And then, as I’m going to do, you can use the word ithyphallic at every possible opportunity.

19 thoughts on “Words I Don’t Know

    • I haven’t heard “interstices” used exactly that way but it makes sense. I know it’s used a lot in academia to refer to states or identities between more conventional or known ones. I was a little surprised that the previous reader hadn’t known “lattice,” but maybe it wasn’t used so much in 1963 :).

      Liked by 1 person

    • Mitered comes from carpentry. To miter something is to cut it either straight or at and angle with either a chop saw or a miter box….its different then a table saw.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. I knew reticule meant handbag from all the historical fiction romance novels I read as a teenager, haha. I had no idea about the crosshairs meaning though, so that was a bonus. 🙂 I knew a few of the other words on here as well – learned ‘oubliette’ watching a show about old British castles! – and it’s always fun to learn new ones. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I would have had to look all of them up, just to be sure. Will probably only remember Ithyphallic and only knew chivvied almost for sure and reticule as a small hand bag from reading historical romance novels. ~~dru~~

    Liked by 1 person

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