Hey, Word Geeks! Now There’s a Website for You

Vocabulary.com could actually make speaking well cool again.

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Quick, use autochthonous in a sentence. And before you ask, no, it’s not what a chthonous uses to drive to work. How about lorgnette or phrontistery?

OK, it’s fair to say that none of these come up much in conversation, but hey, they’re there for a reason and it would be nice if we all took these and other friendless words out for a little fresh air every now and then.

Consider that the average speaker of English has mastered about 50,000 words, which seems like a nice big number until you consider that the 20-vol. set of the Oxford English dictionary includes 171,476 of them, which means that for every word we know, there are 2.4 we don’t.

For the record, autochthonous is something that originates where it’s found — so sand is autochthonous to the desert, but a turtle is not autochthonous to the top of a fence post. Lorgnettes are those glasses that are held to the eyes by way of a long handle and that at some point in history apparently really were used by people other than rich women in Droopy cartoons. Phrontistery is a place for study and learning — and if you came up 0 for 3 in all of these, maybe you should have spent more time studying and less time partying during your four years at the phrontistery your parents paid perfectly good money for.

But we don’t have to remain linguistic nincompoops. The rise of the web means that spelling, definitions and even usages are available simply by typing any stray aquilege (a plant of the genus Aquilegia) or minacious (something that threatens or foreshadows evil developments) you may encounter into a Google field. The question is, Does this really help you learn? Do the words stick, or do they run out of your head the second you pour them in?

Dedicated vocabulary websites help, and Vocabulary.com, which launched in 2011 and is produced by the same folks who created The Visual Thesaurus, has been among the leaders in the sector. Up until now, Vocabulary.com has been an entirely free service, and it still will be for the average user. But a new, for-fee version for teachers and school districts is also about to be rolled out, and that could turn out to be a very good thing for the students in the schools that sign up for the service.

One of the big problems for any teacher trying to pound language into disinterested kids’ heads is how to pitch a lesson to a classroom full of students who learn at different levels. Aim too high and you lose the kids in the middle and the bottom. Aim too low and everyone but the slowest learners wind up bored to tears. The typical answer, aim for the middle, achieves just what you’d expect: adequate but unexceptional teaching.

Vocabulary.com attempts to address that first by gamifying its lessons. Students answer questions about words and after each lesson see where they stand in relation to their classmates, watching as their ranking rises and falls. The software collects real-time data on each player’s proficiency and asks them one or more questions about each word, trying to nudge them along toward a full understanding of it.

“The system acts like a personal trainer,” says Ben Zimmer, language columnist for the Boston Globe and the site’s executive producer. “We work with the student to reinforce memory and mastery of the word.” That, of course, skews any real competition among the students; refs hardly stop the game to perform calisthenics with players who need it. But a completely even playing field is not the point — learning is. Still, to keep the energy of the game going, the system posts regularly updated leader boards and also allows participating schools to compete with one another.

Teachers can keep an eye on all of this, with back door access to the work all of the students are doing so they can see how they’re progressing. They can tailor their lessons for a particular group of students and then enroll them in an online class, choosing which kids belong in which group and teaching them in ways appropriate to them. “It’s an efficient use of teachers’ time since they don’t have to work on things kids know already,” says Zimmer. “They can drill down and see how every student is doing.”

Significantly, Vocabulary.com does not concentrate exclusively on the meanings of words, but also their usages and applications — when they can be used as both a noun and as a verb; their various shades of context and meaning. It’s the difference between understanding, say, the color blue, and understanding all of its intensities and saturations, from navy through cerulean through an airy pastel. Those aren’t words, they’re word pictures, and they’re awfully nice things for kids to be able to paint.