Discussing and Refining the Meaning of a Term

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore a few methods in how to discover and refine the meaning of a term, through using the dictionary and our critical thinking skills, and how best to commit it to memory.

Words, Words, Words!

There are hundreds of thousands of words in the English language; indeed, even committing to learn a new word each day will only scratch the surface of the full range of words in the dictionary. Fortunately, some words (like 'it,' 'him,' and 'was') are used constantly. But other important words, like 'defenestrate' or 'larynx,' are used less commonly but still hold a lot of power and can significantly alter the meaning of a text.

In this lesson, we will explore some of the methods and tricks one can use when trying to commit new terms to memory.

Context Clues

There it is: you're reading that new novel you bought and there's a word which you've never seen before. Sure, you could whip out your phone or your old-fashioned dictionary and look up the term immediately, but that won't help you as much as trying to decipher the meaning yourself first. Read the entire passage surrounding the word, including the sentences before and after the term occurs, and see if you can at least determine the approximate meaning of the word.

The tone and parts of the sentence which help you reveal the meaning of the word you don't understand are called context clues. Let's try an example:

'Given his penchant for ice cream, she gave him an extra scoop.'

Let's say in the above sentence you don't know what the word 'penchant' means. Let's look at the context clues - in this case, that she gave him an extra scoop because of his 'penchant.' One can assume that 'penchant' means 'likes' or 'wants,' and she gave him an extra scoop because he 'likes' ice cream. Sure enough, the dictionary gives us the definition for penchant as 'a strong inclination, taste, or liking for something.' Trying to decipher a word's meaning before referring to a dictionary can greatly enhance your critical thinking skills.

Of course, official definitions like the one just given are important as well. After all, some words can have multiple meanings. Once you've tried to figure out the definition on your own, it's important to look up the official definition and do something to try to commit this term to memory.

Some people like to make flash cards of new words with the word's various meanings written on the back. Then one can use these cards to practice. For others, rote memorization is the best way to commit new words to memory, and writing them and their definitions down multiple times is the best way to commit new terms to memory. Experiment with different methods to try to find which way works best for you.


Now let's take a couple passages from actual literature and see if we can discover the meanings of the more unusual words. Then we'll go over the dictionary's definitions for them. The words we will examine are in bold. Both of these examples are taken from one of the wordiest books in English literature: Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles.

  • 'His room was an immense attic which ran the whole length of the dairy house.'

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