The Easy Way to Learn New Vocabulary


Ever had a car wreck? Any big, emotional, unusual event such as a car wreck, our high car-between-boat-and-landschool graduation, or our first kiss, is easily memorable. No notes. No flash cards. It just sticks!

“Car wreck” memories stick because they are emotional and unusual.  They are also multi-sensory.  So how do we take something as boring as (or anatomy, or chemistry, or [fill in your own bugaboo here] and make it multi-sensory, unusual, and emotional?

It’s actually very easy!  Here it is in a nutshell.  Ready?  Take the word and the definition…

  1. Break them into pieces,
  2. Turn those pieces into objects or actions you can picture,
  3. Then make a false memory.

Maybe an example will help clarify.  Let’s try this method out as we learn the definition for the word “turbid.”  Know what it means?  Think of where you might have heard it before.  What other words does it sound like?  If all else fails, look it up. Spend time actually thinking through these questions and your memory for the word will be much better. Think of it as buttering up your significant other before asking them for the car keys.

Double click this … turbid … and take a minute to read through the definition.

Turbid means cloudy, but not cloudy as in, “it’s cloudy outside, guess we can’t go to the pool.”  Turbid means clouded up by motion, as in “I’m sorry I drove my muddy jeep into your clean swimming pool, Mrs. McKenzie.  I guess I made it a bit…turbid.”  There it is…the word and the definition.  Turbid means cloudy.  (We can dispense with the full definition.  “Cloudy” will be the mental handle that helps us retrieve the full meaning.)

Next, break the word into pieces and turn the pieces into objects or actions you can memorize.  The first part of turbid is “tur” or “turb.”  Does that remind you of anything?  What words start with that sound?  Again, take time and actually consider each of those questions.

Other words that start with those sounds might be, “turban” or “turkey?”  Maybe “tore” or “tear” or “turnip?”  Any of those will work.

Let’s use “tore,” as in “When I reached down to pick up the donut, I tore my leotards.”

Second part; “bid.”  How about “bed” or “bite” or “bit?”  We’ll use “bed,” as in “Early to bed and early to rise means you’re getting old.”

And finally, “cloudy.”  I can picture “cloudy” without having to turn it into something else.  So we’re good; “tore,” “bed,” “cloudy.”

Now we are going to make a false memory that uses these three things in order.  For example, “I tore my bed and it became cloudy.”  Hmmm.  Not too memorable.  Certainly not emotional, unusual, or multi-sensory.

Let’s try again.  “In a fit of anger, I tore the fabric of my mattress/bed, and the white stuffing came out.  The ceiling fan was on high, and the fluff began to cloud up the room.  It got in my eyes and throat, and I began to cough uncontrollably.”  Better!

Now make the memory yours.  Close your eyes and put yourself in the situation. You stalk in to your room, absolutely fuming about…something.  What made you so angry?  Fill in the details yourself.  The sheets are in the washer right now, so you throw yourself down on the mattress to kick and scream.  What does the mattress feel like?  Is the light on or off?  What time of day is it?  What are you wearing?  Add details to make it real.

You grab the mattress in your hands and tear it.  What does it sound like?  How does it feel?  Fluff goes everywhere because your ceiling fan is on high.  What does the fluff look like?  Can you smell it?  Can you feel the air from the fan?  Can you feel the fluff sticking to your sweaty forehead?  What does it feel like to get the fluff in your eyes and throat?  Can you see it swirling around you?

Suddenly—blam!—somebody kicks in the door.  Men in blue uniforms flash their badges at you.  The mattress police!  You get arrested for ripping the tags off your mattress.

Now try it out.  Think through your mental movie for the word, “Turbid.”  Close your eyes and relive the experience.  Tore … bed … cloudy.

You can see many more examples of how to apply this to GRE and SAT vocabulary by looking at my “Vocabulary Builder” posts.

This is an excerpt from my short ebook, How to Make Anything Unforgettable. Email me if you’d like a free copy … blair (at) studyprof (dot) com. Premium members can always call me (via skype if you like) to talk about your particular memory challenges.

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