Should You Look Up Words You Don’t Know While Reading?


An essay on Book Riot begged a question, Should You Look Up Words You Don’t Know While Reading?  It was a question that I thought didn’t even need to be asked. Granted it was not even 7:00 A.M. and I hadn’t had my full ration of coffee. 

Why wouldn’t you look up a word you don’t understand? As the essay goes on to point out, you could make an assumption based on the context. Even if you assume wrong, not knowing a single word would not send the entire text collapsing down around the reader in fire and ash. 

These are fine choices for the participation award crowd. However I ask, what if the reader assumes wrong. What if the narrator is unreliable or the character waivers or has their, well character, challenged. This unknown word could be the glimpse behind the curtain to a much deeper and rewarding read. 

Well as it turns out, some Smarty Pants types have done some research and relayed some data that the essay cites. The data shows that people don’t retain new words for very long. Very long being about thirty seconds. Granted, this seems to be based on looking up words while reading. Maybe running into a story and a lot more words splits our processing and soaking up new words power.

When I read Gideon the Ninth, I had to look up a bunch of words. Too many to recall. In my review I mention two words, “prolix” and “soto voce.” I remember the latter clearly, but the former is a bit murky. In fact it’s downright ethereal. Too be honest I looked it up and I was entirely wrong. I think I even used it in conversation once. I felt like a knob after doing so. 

Where was I? Right. It’s beneficial to know that we don’t retain new words for very long. Especially when we’re distracted right after learning the new word. Beneficial because it means we can do something about it and that I’m not stupid. We’re all stupid! Good news for me, bad news for us. I’m still going to continue to look up words while reading, but will try to note, review, and solidify them in the relatively near future.