How to remember words using their origin

Miriam Herud

YouTube video

Here’s a handy tip on how to finally remember a hard-to-remember word.

I think we’ve all been there – trying to build our vocabulary really hard by noting down word by word making little glossaries of our own, cramming day and night, memorizing, possibly using special programs or apps, so called vocabulary builders, such as Anki etc.

And yet, there always happens to be a word or an expression that you can never, for the life of you, remember. You don’t know why, you just see an imaginary red light flashing above the word signaling: it’s not gonna happen – you’ll forget me the minute you close this notebook.

Well, don’t give up so fast! You may want to continue trying to memorize it a bit longer and see whether it bears any fruit or not, but it could be a complete and utter waste of time. Instead, why don’t you check out the origin of the word? All good monolingual dictionaries mention the origin, or if you don’t use one, google it – just write “origin” after the word and Bob’s your uncle. I must say this technique has helped me loads of times.

You’re probably asking how. Well, it shows you how the word originated or which other word it was derived from. Sometimes it refers to a story that makes it even easier to remember the word since you’re able to imagine the circumstances in which it was formed.

Anyway, this way you often find out about interesting facts or links between your troublemaker word and a word from another language, possibly your own mother tongue. Your brain will subsequently make a connection between them, thus enabling you to remember it more easily. I’m not saying it works every time, but it’s certainly worth checking it out.

Here are a couple of my own troublemaker examples:

A while ago I had a problem remembering the adjective “dingy”. It describes places or things that are dark, dirty and in bad condition (e.g. dingy room/hotel/clothes). However, after checking the origin, my problem was gone. The dictionary suggested this word is based on an old English word for “dung” (i.e. excrement; solid waste from animals, especially cows). Sorted. I can’t think of any other word that spells “dirt” better than “dung” 🙂

The next word I’m sure I’m gonna remember for the rest of my life is “maudlin”. Pretty unrememberable, isn’t it? It’s an adjective synonymous with “sentimental”; it describes a person talking or behaving in a sad, silly and emotional way. First time I came across this word I didn’t give it too much attention. Yes, I looked it up in a dictionary, but dismissed it right away thinking it’s probably not commonly used, plus, honestly, I just didn’t like it 🙂 But then I overheard it again on TV a couple of weeks later, and then one more time. So I figured it’s probably not as rare as I thought. By that time, however, I’d yet again forgotten what it meant. So I decided to give the origin technique a shot. And, who would’ve guessed – it paid off.

Maudlin comes from the word Magdalene and if you’re familiar with the Bible a bit, you may’ve heard of the woman called Mary Magdalene. It was the one who allegedly sinned with lots of men, which is why people wanted to stone her. Jesus saved her from stoning and forgave her. Long story short, she turned, repented of her sins and became one of his most fervent followers. After his crucifixion the disciples found her weeping in front of his empty tomb, assuming Jesus’ body was stolen. And this very picture is important – Mary Magdalene crying, we could say, being sentimental… Once it entered my mind, the adjective “maudlin” secured itself a firm spot there – because the resemblance, especially in pronunciation, is obvious: “Magdalene” /mæɡdəliːn/ – “maudlin” /ˈmɔːdlɪn/.

I don’t know if these two examples make sense to you, because we’re all different and have different perceptions, but they sure do to me. That’s why I highly recommend this technique. So next time you can’t remember a word, be a detective and investigate how it originated – it might help you great deal.