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How to Be Rich, Even When You’re Poor

Words are free. If you see an interesting word, and you learn how to use it, you can add it to your Bank of Vocabulary account, without any fees or interest rates!

What are your favorite words? You can’t hoard endless amounts of your favorite snack or your favorite brand of clothing, but you can have as many of your favorite words as you want – for FREE!

I will never forget the college professor who told me that I could make any word I use my own. Building your vocabulary is a simple yet very powerful practice, once you start taking advantage of it.

You can even invent words! If you need to express something, but can’t think of the appropriate word, make a new word! If you use it frequently enough, and can convince other people to use it, it will become part of language, just like any other word. Dictionary editors frequently add words to subsequent editions. According to Merriam-Webster:

To be included in a Merriam-Webster dictionary, a word must be used in a substantial number of citations that come from a wide range of publications over a considerable period of time. Specifically, the word must have enough citations to allow accurate judgments about its establishment, currency, and meaning.

How do words enhance your life? Using a rich and varied vocabulary will make you seem more intelligent and articulate. If you want to belong to a certain group, you can use the words the group members use when they are together.

The words you use help shape your identity. But how will you know which words you want to use if you don’t know many words? How do you find new words? How do you discover the riches that await you?

Some people cruise the dictionary, others subscribe to word-of-the-day e-mails. Personally, I think the best way to expand your vocabulary is to read challenging works: books, magazine articles, newspaper articles, essays, etc. Make note of the words you like, even if you’ve seen them before or know what they mean. Good writers use words in challenging, surprising contexts. Reading something in context is the best way to learn.

For example, this morning, on the bus, I was reading “Complicit with Everything”, a poem by Tony Hoagland. Before reading this poem, I was sort of familiar with the word complicit, but I probably wouldn’t have used it in everyday speech. In the poem, a vine growing up the side of a shingled house is described as “complicit with nothing but everything”.

I had never seen the word “complicit” used in such a context. When I had access to a computer, I looked it up on “choosing to be involved in an illegal or questionable act, esp. with others; having complicity.” Could you imagine a vine described as something involved in an illegal act? Poets make words fun and interesting. I will certainly remember “complicit” in the future.

Don’t skip over unfamiliar words. Make a point to notice how the writer uses the word in context. For the rest of the day, find reasons to use that word in conversation. I promise you that you won’t sound like a jerk if you occasionally use a “big” word. In fact, you might inspire someone else to use that word too. And you’ll be one word richer than you were before.

(Photo by Bethany L. King)


  1. As a younger person, I actually found that using a larger vocabulary had the opposite effect. I literally ended up saying things that ZERO people around me, my family often included, knew the meaning of. As a result, for at least some portion of my life, I think fewer people wanted to talk to me.

    And I wasn’t using words so people WOULD like me. I used them because that is the mode of expression I had available to me. And because I honestly didn’t think the words I was using would be that obscure, and misunderstood by so many people. (As in, zero.)

    Today I generally use a larger word only if it is the one word that can sum up what I am feeling. And while in spirit I am with you totally, I have found that at least in my circles, the practical truth is when you use bigger words, you just piss people off, or they glaze over you. I’m not saying I like that it is true, but my experience has been thus.

  2. I’m not deliberately obscure, but I won’t simplify either. Making someone learn a new word is as important as making children eat their vegetables.

  3. Laryssa Laryssa

    That’s a great point, Ty. I think the real trick is to keep these words handy and use them wisely, when they are really the only words that can express what you’re thinking or feeling. You wrote, “Today I generally use a larger word only if it is the one word that can sum up what I am feeling.” That’s a great strategy!

    I think the main reason why so many people are afraid of “big” words or people who use “big” words is because a lot of people use them incorrectly, or in inappropriate contexts. Sometimes, I listen to English grad students chatting in the grad student lounge and wonder, “Do they even know what they’re saying?”. They spew an endless string of five-dollar words.

    When you use a “big” word, you should use it in such a way that other people can guess its meaning based on the context, even if they don’t know the exact meaning. Otherwise, you WILL sound like a jerk.

  4. Samuel Duval Samuel Duval

    Again, great read! It’s amazing what the proper words can do, both in conversation, and the written word.
    I personally love a good Stephen King novel. He tells a story with wit and humor that really leave me lost in time, as pages turn to hours. He does it well, because he’s a great storyteller. Simplistic and wonderful, I buy everything he releases.
    But there are others out there whose prose is nothing short of poetry, that’s when I find my nirvana.
    Words used in strange new ways, character communication where every “he said, she said” borders the profound, or everyday subjects and objects described with such texture and detail that the writers passion becomes contagious.
    Not that every jot or tittle has to be Shakespearian, but wouldn’t it be grand if it where?

  5. Love the piece and agree with all of it. I’ve had a similar experience as Ty growing up. It’s cheesy but “with great power comes great responsibility” and I discovered that I had to be more aware of my vocabulary and obscure references because it made many people around me feel small and insecure. I, of course, was completely oblivious but after much reflection, I realized that I was inadvertently intellectually bullying them. There are many who purposely intellectually bully others as a reaction to being physically bullied themselves- the “liberal elitist” if you will. I realized that it is a fine line to walk but when you make people feel “stupid” it’s better to take to a step back and reflect on the power you hold over them rather then close in on yourself and loose relationships.

    I, luckily, found an amazing girlfriend and great artistic partners (in my hip-hop group, the Diego Brown Project) who can go blow-for-blow with me. This inner circle became my intellectual outlet – where I don’t have to worry about walking on egg shells. It makes dealing with others the rest of the day much easier to deal with.

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