Bubble Vocabulary: The Words You Almost Know, Sometimes Use, But Are Secretly Unsure Of.

This post by Seth Stevenson originally appeared on Slate on 4/29/14.

Shibboleth. Casuistry. Recondite.

A little while back, I was chatting with a friend when he described a situation as “execrable.” He pronounced it “ex-EH-crable.” I’d always thought it was “EX-ecrable.” But execrable is a word I’d mostly just read in books, had rarely heard spoken, and had never once, in my whole life, uttered aloud—in large part because I wasn’t exactly sure how to say it, and because the nuances of its definition (beyond “bad”) escaped me.

Since we have a trusting, forthright relationship, I decided to broach the topic. “Is that how you pronounce that word?” I asked. “And what exactly does it mean?” Here my friend confessed he was not 100 percent certain on either count. He added that, earlier that same day, he’d pronounced avowed with three syllables and then immediately wondered if it might only have two.

We’ve all experienced moments in which we brush up against the ceilings of our personal lexicons. I call it “bubble vocabulary.” Words on the edge of your ken, whose definitions or pronunciations turn out to be just out of grasp as you reach for them. The words you basically know but, hmmm, on second thought, maybe haven’t yet mastered?


Click here to read the full post, which includes a Bubble Vocabulary quiz, on Slate.