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Wordy Wednesday: Learn a Word, Take a Breath

When I began teaching for a niche tutoring company in Southern California, I encountered a challenge I had never faced before: I had to learn how to define words. Not words from the lesson objectives, but commonplace words, like “occur” or “vary.”

At this company (where I still work) nearly all of my students are English language learners who speak Mandarin at home. I found I couldn’t assume that they knew all the words that might appear in our lessons. Furthermore, because they encountered so many new words on a daily basis, I couldn’t always count on them to ask me when they didn’t recognize a word, nor could I rely on them to know which words were important to a sentence and which could be glossed over.

I got in the habit of checking in with them when I sensed that they had lost track of a sentence’s meaning, identifying the key words to define and then finding words they already knew to form the definition. For example, another word for “occur” is “happen.” Or, when something is “varied” it means there are a lot of different ones (sort of).

Still, students and I occasionally stump each other. When a middle schooler gave me attitude, I told her, “you need to treat me with respect.” She retorted, What does ‘respect’ mean?” I had to stop and think, what does it mean?

The best I could come up with in the moment was, “it means treating me like a human being.” It worked well enough.

I’ve learned that I can’t take for granted the ability to define a word. However, neither can I take for granted knowing every word I come across.

Since working with my students and imagining what it is like to read from their perspective, my eyes have opened up to how vast the English language is and how much of it is still foreign to me, a person who has spoken English all her life.

For the past year I’ve been jotting down the definitions of words that are new to me in my reading, and it is paying off.

An open journal with writing, a blue ribbon bookmark, and a pen
This is my vocab journal, isn’t it so cute ☺️

Even words that I figured would be low yield, like “pemmican” or “dewlap” have appeared in subsequent reading. (Funnily enough, while reading a novel I spotted a word—caldera—which a student and I had learned from her science textbook just a few days earlier.) I hope that you have experienced the same triumph as I have when I recognize a word I now know because it was featured on Wordy Wednesday.

Today’s words come from the book Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by journalist James Nestor.

Reading Nestor’s book is like reading the transcript of an NPR podcast. Between interviews with experts, Nestor laces personal narrative and describes scientific information in laypeople’s terms. While the last few chapters come with a “don’t try this at home” disclaimer, the book is otherwise riddled with practical tips to achieve health by modulating how you breathe.

Like most authors, Nestor stumped me with unfamiliar words. Below you’ll find each word with the sentence in which I found it, its Oxford definition, and a sentence of my own using the word. Take a stab at it and share your sentences in the comments—the zanier the better!

1. landlubber

“Surely someone had studied the effects of this conscious breathing on landlubbers?” (xvii).

Noun: a person unfamiliar with the sea or sailing.

I’m too much of a landlubber to go on a cruise. (Also, covid.)

2. hirsute

“I’d been thinking about our hirsute forebears ever since I’d visited Evans months back” (16).

Adjective: hairy.

With a mischievous grin she told her friend, “you do too have a type: hirsute!”

3. luthier

“One [Buteyko practitioner] was David Wiebe, a 58-year-old luthier of cellos and violins from Woodstock, New York, whom I’d read about in The New York Times” (99).

Noun: a maker of stringed instruments such as violins or guitars.

As a child I remember visiting the workshop of a luthier who was Dad’s old friend; Dad himself had once been a luthier, having built a standup bass and two bass guitars.

Thanks for joining me for Wordy Wednesday! I’ll have more words for you in two weeks. Happy reading, and happy spring!



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