While I was chatting with Harvard University education professor Catherine Snow for my story about a new take on teaching vocabulary to San Diego students, Snow schooled me by teaching me a new word. Her example really helped me understand how we learn new words — and expanded my vocabulary to boot — so I thought I’d share it:

“If I say to you, ‘Donald Rumsfeld thought the French were epicene,’ what would you think it meant?” Snow asked me.

I think of myself as a word nerd, but I had no clue. So I tried my first trick, breaking up the word into different parts. “Well,” I said, “I’d think of other words that began with ‘epi,’ like ‘epidermis’ or ‘epicurean.’ Which means …” I couldn’t think of what “epi” did mean.

Snow rescued me. “You know that ‘epi’ means above, or something like that,” she said. “But you still don’t know exactly what ‘epicene’ means, nor do you know enough about it to use it yourself. So what if I tell you now that this sentence was used by (New York Times columnist) Maureen Dowd in the period when the French had refused to join the so-called coalition of the willing?

“You know it’s probably negative,” Snow said. “But that’s about as much as you know. But then what if you said, ‘Giving grapefruit spoons as a birthday present to a 13-year-old boy is rather epicene.’ You might think, ‘Well, OK, what is that actually? That’s kind of … inappropriate? Or insensitive?’”

She continued: “I could give you six more sentences, each one of which would narrow your hypothesis. But then I could give you a sentence with rich context, like, ‘German has three genders for nouns, masculine, feminine and neuter, whereas Dutch has only two, neuter and epicene.’ Whereas you realize it means something between male and female. In the Donald Rumsfeld sense, sissy.”

I have to confess: I might not have totally gotten the meaning of “epicene” even from that last sentence, which still confuses me a little. But I got Snow’s point: We learn words by hypothesizing about what they mean when we hear them and altering our hypotheses as we hear the words used again and again.

Snow said it takes between 15 and 30 exposures to a word to figure out what it means, which is why just looking it up in the dictionary isn’t enough. Which might, in turn, explain why I can’t remember many of the SAT words I crammed in my brain as a high school student — but I bet I’ll remember “epicene.”


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