What New Word Have You Learned Lately?

September 22, 2021

Alert English speakers at every level can learn new words every day. If we’re reading and listening actively, we’ll come across unfamiliar or forgotten terms. And with a little conscious effort, we can remember them long-term. We can do this by taking three simple steps.

Recently, I heard a word on the radio that I’d never heard before: janky. The speaker was describing a type of low-cost DIY (Do-It-Yourself) air purifier that people are building to help ventilate school classrooms this fall. He said the home-built purifier was a “janky box” with various filters and fans attached with tape.

“Janky”? That’s a word I’d like to know! Note-taking isn’t always convenient when we’re concentrating on listening, but this word seemed worth catching before it escaped. That’s the first step in remembering vocabulary: catch words that interest you by writing them down.

Looks a Bit Janky Back There, by Lloyd Bishop

“Janky” got me scrambling for a pen because I liked its sound — JANG-key — and I wondered if its meaning might be a blend of “junky” and “jangly,” with a bit of “funky” and “wacky” mixed in. Also, the context in which it came up seemed to confirm my hunch: calling a homemade machine a “janky box” suggested it looked junky and funky, and maybe those taped-on fans and filters even jangled as they whirled and whirred!

Looking the word up, I found “janky” is a casual American adjective meaning “low quality; unreliable.” That’s pretty close to “junky” (“of poor quality or little value”), and could relate to things with metal parts that jangle (“make high-pitched metal-on-metal or harsh ringing sounds”).

But wait a minute! The speaker on the radio called those home-built air purifiers “janky,” but the report went on to emphasize how well they work — even better than expensive factory-made items. So why call them “janky”?

Since I could look up the original radio report on the internet, I could replay it and listen more carefully to the context. That’s the second step in remembering new words: notice the context in which you hear or read them.

Replaying the report, I heard the speaker’s exact words: “It looks like a sort of janky box that has ….” So he’s not saying the purifier “is” janky. Instead, he qualifies (softens) the word with “sort of” and says it “looks” janky — “like a sort of” boxy contraption — and this sort-of-janky-looking thing can clean the air in a classroom continuously for a whole school year! He’s having fun with this jaunty word, tossing it lightly at a goofy-looking gadget that turns out to be a highly effective, cost-efficient device.

Since this is my first experience with “janky,” it’s prudent for me to try using it the way I heard it. That’s the third step in remembering new words: do something with them, use them, starting in ways you’re already familiar with, in contexts similar to those in which you’ve encountered them. 

So for now, I won’t call anything “janky” outright. Instead, I’ll qualify and downplay the word, and use it to describe appearances: “That looks sort of janky,” or “Well, it’s a little janky, but ….” 

Dictionary.com (see source notes below) labels “janky” as slang and lists more meanings: “not working or operating properly; untrustworthy or disreputable [person]; undesirable; dilapidated, run-down.” With such negative meanings, it’s probably best for me to delay applying my new word directly to things people might actually like or value, or to people themselves!

Interestingly, “janky” is followed by “(ph)” in the transcript of the radio report I mentioned. The “(ph)” means “phonetically”: a note that the transcriber was unfamiliar with the word and guessed its spelling based on its sound. So “janky” was new to that professional listener, too.

Let’s review our three steps for reinforcing new words in your long-term memory:

-1- Catch words that interest you by writing them down.

-2- Notice the context in which you hear or read them.

-3- Use them! Aim for contexts similar to those in which you’ve encountered them.

What new word have you learned lately? What did you find attractive or intriguing about it? Asking yourself (and others) these questions makes vocabulary-building more conscious & meaningful, and prompts you to get vocal” with your new verbal tools!

* * * * *

SOURCES: National Public Radio, Morning Edition program (NPR.com: “Delta Variant Makes It Even More Important To Have Improved Air Quality In Schools,” August 25, 2021); Google dictionary (google.com: “janky,” “junky”); Dictionary.com (dictionary.com: “janky,” “jangle”); English Wiktionary (en.wiktionary.org: “ph” [Adverb entry]).


A version of this article appeared as a post on NYU’s English Language Institute blog on September 17, 2021.

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