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Building On What You Know

Categories: Vocabulary Improvement Tips, Vocabulary Research, Vocabulary Resources |

Adding new words to your vocabulary will be easier than you think, if you just take a minute to think about all the words that are already in your vocabulary. Most of the thousands of words that you already know have clues that will help you learn new words, building on the knowledge of vocabulary that you have learned and memorized to date. One of the ways to do this is to use your knowledge of root words to quickly and easily understand the meanings of unfamiliar words. The term “root words” refers to Latin or Greek words, or parts of words, that show up in today’s vocabulary. (Note: English has borrowed words from many languages over time, so there’s a chance that the root may come from another language, but it’s not common.) Since each is a “root” you can imagine that the words derived from that root have grown up and evolved like branches of a tree. You can always trace the final word – the “leaf” at the end – back down the branch back to the root.

For example, the Latin words vivax (“lively”) and vitalis (“related to life”) give us the roots viv and vita. You’ll see these in words like vivacious (“full of life”), vital (“essential to life”), and survive (“to remain alive”). The Latin verb secare (“to cut”) remains in English as the root sec, which is seen in words like sector (“a piece of a larger area”) and bisect (“to cut in two”). With the knowledge you’ve just learned about these root words, can you figure out what the word vivisection means?

Another way to build on the words you know is to use suffixes and prefixes. Suffixes are syllables added to the end of a word, and prefixes are added to the beginning. You’re already very familiar with them both, even if you don’t realize it.

Common suffixes: -able, -ness, -ly, -tion, -ment
Common prefixes: pre-, un-, dis-, inter-, bi-

To illustrate, look at this word that was recently added to the official list of English words by the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary: unloveableness. You’ve got to love the way the word “love” has been changed by adding two suffixes and a prefix!

un = “not”
able = “capacity to be”
ness = “the quality of”

While this word’s fairly easy to figure out, it’s a good way to show you how knowing the meanings of suffixes and prefixes can help you decipher the meaning of a new word. In this case, the meaning “the quality of not having the capability of being loved” might be intuitively obvious, but taking the time to really look at all parts of a word will give you the information you need to use that intuition deliberately in your vocabulary study.

Answer: “Vivisection” means cutting things up, or dissecting them, while they are still alive.