Here’s One Quick Way to Build Your Vocabulary

While it’s not quite 100%, many strange or new words contain secret clues as to what that word is trying to tell you. By knowing the parts the unfamiliar word is composed of, we can frequently figure out the meaning quite easily.

For example, let’s take a look at two words: malware, and malabsorption. Would you like to have either one? I don’t think so! Even though a word may not be an everyday word, we can look at those two words, and get the idea that neither one is very good. In fact, we most likely get the idea that they may be pretty bad. Why? Because of that little prefix “mal.” Why? Because most of the words we do know that begin with “mal,” mean “bad.”

We’ve talked about suffixes and prefixes in earlier posts, and will again. Today let’s take a look at word parts that indicate sections of the human body.

For example: You make a Dr. appointment with a gastroenterologist. Why? Probably because you have a stomach problem. We know that from the “gastro” beginning to this word. “Gastro” has to do with the stomach. So let’s take a quick look at other word parts and see how they relate to the various sections of your body.

How many of these word parts do you know? Test Yourself. Print out this page and write the answers in the blank space following each word. Or just write the answers on a blank sheet of paper.













How did you do? Here are the answers, using Merriam-Webster as our authority:

glos:  tongue

Glos actually means tongue, comes from the New Latin, and was first used in 1879.

hema:  blood

May also be spelled in “British English” as haema- and is used to form a number of words referring to blood. For example, hematology – a medical science dealing with blood and blood-forming organs. Or, hematocrit, one of the scores you see from your blood tests.

man:  hand

Used in a long string of words, generally referring to “of or relating to using the hands.”

neur:  nerve

First used as a medical term meaning “of, relating to, or affecting a nerve or the nervous system” around 1847.

card:  heart

“Card” brings us words like “cardiac,” “cardiogram,” and “cardiograph,” the machine that produces the cardiogram – all related to the heart.

corp:  body

Anyone who has ever watched a detective movie or program is well aware of what a “corpse” is. And a corpus can be a body of work, such as writings, speeches, and collections of art. “Corp” has been used as a basis for words relating to body since the 15th century, and comes from Middle English, from Latin.

dent:  tooth

Here’s an easy one. We’re all familiar with the words “dentist,” “dental,” and “dental technician.” So when we combine “dent” with the suffixes “ist,” and “al,” the combination gives us “dentist” – one who works with teeth, and “dental” – relating to teeth or to the work dentists or technicians do.

derm:  skin

And so we have “dermatitis,” a skin condition combining “skin” with “inflammation.” Or dermabrasion, a skin treatment involving skin abrasion. Or dermatologist, the physician specializing in skin conditions.

osteo:  bone

Osteoarthritis, osteomyelitis, and osteomalacia are all diseases of the bone. While we might not recognize these words, or know exactly what they mean, we can make a pretty good guess that they are bone-related.

ped:  foot

This one is not so consistent, but is a good starting point that gives us foot-related words such as pedal, pedicab, and pedicure.

pneuma:  breathe

Standing alone, “pneuma” comes from the Greek and means “soul,” or “spirit,” which is not such a stretch to  “pneumatology,” the study of spiritual beings or phenomena. From there to air, which gives us “pneumatic,” or using air pressure to move or work, and on to respiration, or breathing. And to words like “pneumonia,” a serious illness that makes it difficult to breathe.

psych:  mind

Lots of new words have crept into our lexicon, based on “psych” – all having to do with the mind. “Psych-out”; “psych,”as in preparing oneself for mental processes and activities; or “psycho.” The more traditional use is for words like psychology (the study of the mind and behavior); or psychiatry (a branch of medicine concerned with mental or emotional disorders).

Bottom line: Look for the secrets in unfamiliar words, and you’ll make pretty good guesses as to what the word means, especially if it makes sense in the context of the sentence.



Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentations; executive coaching, consulting, writing, and editing services. Call Gail at 503/292-9681, or email to learn more.

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