Whether you are a native English speaker or a foreigner, there are times you have to or want to learn new vocabulary.
At a certain level of advancement in English you will get into the area sometimes referred to as SAT words. The SAT is a standardized test widely used for college admissions in the United States. The acronym stands for Scholastic Aptitude Test or Scholastic Assessment Test.
Depending on your point of view (and/or native language) - learning the "advanced" English vocabulary comes easy or with difficulty. Most of those "posh" and "learned" words are a mix of Latin and Greek, sometimes filtered through French (part of the reason for which native Romance language speakers sound absurdly debonair during a fire when shouting "Extinguish it!!!" instead of "Put it out!!!").
History of the English Vocabulary
In short, the history of English vocabulary goes like this (in chronological order, which also coincides with the level of sophistication):
- Anglo-Saxon (Germanic) rough and tough short words (and Germanic-style compounds like "housewife");
- Norman French words;
- Latin, Greek and French words.
We won't get into more details here, since it's a rather long story. But let me show you how I approach the "refined" lexemes.
Take anomie, for example (also spelled "anomy"):
condition in which society provides little moral guidance to individuals
This word was borrowed (and never given back) from French, but it originally comes from Ancient Greek.
It's built like this:
a - without (just like, for example: a-theist = without god)
nomie / nomy - from nomos - Greek word for "law" or "order"
(this "built like" thing is called mophology, by the way).
Well, ok, so it's easy to remember the "a", but what's that business with "nomy" or "nomos"?
Do you know words like: taxonomy or economy? How about astronomy?
Turns out that the "nomy" part stands for: “distribution,” “arrangement,” “management”
So, when you arrange living organisms into kingdoms, classes, etc. - you're doing taxonomy.
Economy is, well, "careful management of available resources" (not always so careful, perhaps).
And you can figure out astronomy yourselves.
So far then we've got:
anomie = a + nomy = without + law/arrangement
All we need now is some kind of a visual reference to, say, popculture, and we'll never forget the word "anomie".
It so happens that there is a fantastic TV show (one of the best shows ever, in my opinion), whose main theme is the anomie of the 1960s in the US. Know what it is?
Yes, it's Mad Men. A show where men smoke and drink at work. Women smoke and drink at work. Pregnant women smoke and drink. A gynaecologist smokes while seeing a patient. People drink whiskey for breakfast, have three martinis as lunch and then have an orgy in the office. You get the idea...
So, here's how you remember what "anomie" means:
I call the above an etymeme, by the way:
etymeme = gr etumon + meme
gr etumon = "true thing" (as in etymology - the "true" meaning of words)
meme - everyone knows what this is
Obviously, you won't always find a good visual reference. Not all words are built in a "user-friendly" way, either. However - note that all this digging around we've done in order to find out as much as we could about "anomie" (truth be told - there is a lot more to it than what's above) - helped us focus on the word so that the likeliness of remembering it is very high.
One more thing I actually tend to do is try to use this word when talking or writing to someone. It's sometimes a bit strange when I do this in work email, but any kerfuffle that I might instigate only helps me remember the word :)