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Vol 15|No 2|December|2018

The marriage of vocabulary and creative thought

by Jamie McKenzie (about author)

Part of this article first appeared in "Wordless is Clueless: Using New Technologies to Build Vocabulary and Strengthen Comprehension" By Jamie McKenzie, ©2010.

A rich vocabulary is an essential aspect of reading comprehension and understanding in general. Without a rich vocabulary it is easy for citizens (and our students) to be bamboozled, scammed, and led astray. Fortunately, the Web offers some great tools that make the learning of vocabulary quite engaging.

Photo © J.McKenzie

Grasping the Mysterious, the Confounding and the Essential

As students struggle with complex ideas and concepts, it helps if they can entertain a cloud of words related to the main idea being explored. Whether it be beauty or courage or greed, the goal is to increase the list of related words from an initial list of 5-10 to more than 60. We hope to take the student far past the often simplistic dictionary definitions to a much richer view of the concept.

To illustrate this growth process, we might lead students to move past external aspects of beauty to many aspects that relate to inner beauty. We want them to appreciate the difference between beauty and artifice, cosmetics and glamour. This process is outlined in the two articles below:

When students spend time exploring the concepts put forth by the Dove Evolution video, they begin to see that what sometimes passes as beauty may be more a matter of artifice.

To deepen their understanding of the photoshopping of reality portrayed in this video, students might turn to a thesaurus once again. When they first started thinking about beauty, it is unlikely that trickery, contrivance and ruse would have come to mind, but the exploration of richer meanings leads them to contrast inner beauty with outer beauty and natural beauty with beauty that is staged and contrived.

Online Thesaurus Sites
The Visual Thesaurus



Power Thesaurus


To further the exploration, students might also turn to a quotation Web site like to find sayings that stretch their understanding of the concept at hand.

Searching for "beauty" they find quotations like the following:

“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”
Eleanor Roosevelt
“Beauty of style and harmony and grace and good rhythm depend on simplicity.”

These ideas once again broaden, deepen and enrich their view of the original concept, but now that they have identified related words like "artifice" and "cosmetic," the quotations about these other words serve to further extend their understanding.

“In the factory we make cosmetics; in the drugstore we sell hope.”
Charles Revson
“There are no better cosmetics than a severe temperance and purity, modesty and humility, a gracious temper and calmness of spirit; and there is no true beauty without the signatures of these graces in the very countenance.”
Arthur Helps

Orwell's 1984 — Newspeak and a Very Small Vocabulary

The importance of words was evident to Orwell when he wrote 1984, as a central strategy of the government was the reduction of vocabulary understood and used by the citizens.

"Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten."

Orthodoxy and unquestioning loyalty was the order of the day in 1984 — well served by thought control and a shrinking vocabulary. Narrowing the vocabulary available to the general public can limit the range and depth of their thinking and understanding, making them far more susceptible to totalitarian control, propaganda and appeals to emotion.

Photo © J. McKenzie

Vocabulary as the seasoning or the yeast for creative thought

Photo © J. McKenzie

Imagine bread baked without yeast! Unleavened bread can be tasty, but it tends to be flat. The same is true of thinking. While narrow-minded and simplistic thinking is abetted by limited vocabulary, the opposite is true when it comes to inventive, imaginative and creative thought.

Photo © J. McKenzie

Photo © J. McKenzie

Imagine a spaghetti sauce without spice? How boring and tasteless! Thinking that is based on spartan and limited vocabulary is going to be just as exciting and inspiring as tomato sauce simmering along with no salt, no hot red pepper flakes, no oregano, no garlic, no onions, no mushrooms, no hot sausage and none of the other secret ingredients and spices most of us add to make sure the sauce is heavenly.

Photo © J. McKenzie

An example of rich vocabulary enhancing creative thought
about Jay Gatsby or any character from literature or history

In April of 2018, I published an article - "Important Questions" - outlining the kinds of complex questions students should learn to explore in dynamic and creative ways.
  • Questions about the future
  • Questions about choices
  • Questions about possibilities
  • Questions about character
  • Questions about consequences
  • Questions about meaning
  • Questions about causation
  • Questions about truth
To illustrate the power of enriched vocabulary to support such questioning and thinking, we will explore a question about character:

Some say that Jay Gatsby was a dreamer, and they do not necessarily mean that as a compliment. What do you think? Can you build a case that he was a dreamer in the best sense based on his actions or thoughts, or would you take a different stance?
In the diagram below created at, students can see plenty of words that expand the handful of words they may have originally brought to the question. Their challenge is determining based on evidence which of these new words fit Gatsby. Was he an escapist? Guilty of wishful thinking? A wonderful romantic? A fool? A fraud? A poseur?

In consulting other thesaurus sites, the students find themsleves understanding dreaming and dreamers in ways that are much more nuanced and intriguing than what would be possible with a limited vocabulary. I found that Power Thesaurus offered a very exciting list of 50+ related words that might inspire some original thinking about Gatsby. The image below just shows the top of the list.

Ultimately, students must seek examples from the text that support their stance. Some might point to the scene where Gatsby insists that Daisy say she never loved her husband as evidence of his dream verging on illusion or delusion:

He wanted nothing less of Daisy than that she should go to Tom and say: “I never loved you.”

After she had obliterated four years with that sentence they could decide upon the more practical measures to be taken. One of them was that, after she was free, they were to go back to Louisville and be married from her house—just as if it were five years ago.

“And she doesn’t understand,” he said. “She used to be able to understand. We’d sit for hours——”

He broke off and began to walk up and down a desolate path of fruit rinds and discarded favors and crushed flowers.

“I wouldn’t ask too much of her,” I ventured. “You can’t repeat the past.”

“Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!” He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby (pp. 109-110). Scribner. Kindle Edition.

Photo ©

It turns out that a rich vocabulary is crucial when people explore the eight kinds of important questions.

  • Questions about the future
  • Questions about choices
  • Questions about possibilities
  • Questions about character
  • Questions about consequences
  • Questions about meaning
  • Questions about causation
  • Questions about truth
This activity defining Gatsby's character is further demonstrated in this month's companion article, "Linking thinking, reading, and writing for greater understanding."

The Great Report

  • Creates something new
  • Grapples with a big challenge
  • Explores the unknown
  • Shares insights and understandings that
    are perceptive and original
  • Awakens curiosity
  • Entertains, delights and illuminates

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