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 ….” (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!

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

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


What Word Speaks to You?

August 30, 2021

Vagabonding in France with Friends, by Lloyd Bishop

You know how a particular smell can evoke a vivid memory or powerful feeling? Is there a word in English that does that for you? 

Emotional connections and mental associations with words vary from person to person: a word I find exotic may disgust you, or a word you enjoy saying might embarrass me!

It can be fun knowing certain words speak to you; that is, they represent or express something meaningful to you. Finding them, becoming aware of their “powers,” and using them deliberately are satisfying experiences in themselves. 

There’s a practical benefit, too: doing this helps you become a word cultivator, a grower of vocabulary. You’ll become more conscious about which words you choose to use, and more eager to add new words to your active supply.  

To inspire you on this word-seeking journey, I’ll share an example of my own. Recently, the word vagabond caught my eye, and then it lingered in my mind. I realized I really like that word, and I wondered why. 

Looking carefully at some dictionary entries, however, I saw negative aspects indicating that some people might not share my enthusiasm. Readers of this article may have diverse reactions to “vagabond.” 

The basic meaning of “vagabond” is “a person who wanders from place to place; a wanderer.” I’ll mention its less pleasant nuances in a moment. Right now, I invite you to say the word aloud, stressing the first syllable: 


Or if you prefer phonetic symbols: gə bɑnd

When you say it, do you have any particular feeling or association? If so, note it now, before I discuss my own, so you can accurately recall your immediate reaction.

For me, “vagabond” is an alluring word. The idea of wandering has an old, familiar charm. I was a restless kid who fell in love with outdoor travel and adventure. “Vagabond” vibrates with the excitement of the unknown, the romance of the road, discoveries to be made just over the horizon and, best of all, along the way. 

In fact, the word literally vibrates: all eight of its letters are voiced; that is, our vocal cords vibrate to produce consonants v, g, b, n, d, and vowels are always voiced. That’s why I ask you to say it aloud: give it your voice and you’ll feel it vibrate! 

Also, I find the ONE-two-three rhythm, with its unstressed but long final syllable, resonant and satisfying: VAA-guh-bonnnd.

“Vagabond” evokes memories of bicycle trips I took as a teenager, which featured a lot of improvising and plan-changing, and roundabout walks I’ve often taken with no destination in mind. More broadly, “vagabond” is a vision of “the wanderer,” the wayfaring mystic, someone who knows that magic still exists and can be found, if we only look for it. 

Dictionaries offer meanings and synonyms of “vagabond” that range from neutral — “a person who travels from place to place” — to unstable or unpleasant — “unsettled or aimless wanderer, drifter, hobo, tramp, vagrant, irresponsible idler, loafer, loiterer, street person, beggar, bum.” 

My thinking is that with all those other words to express degrees of disdain, why lump “vagabond” in with the rest? It has its own distinct open-air, open-road free spirit! 

I wonder how perceptions of the word vary across cultures. For example, I’ve heard Great Britain permits overland walking: cross-country rambling, hiking between towns, along farmers’ fields, and through woods, whether public and private. Meanwhile, in the USA, “No Trespassing” signs abound on private property — a slight improvement over “Trespassers Will Be Shot” versions, but threatening nevertheless.

As security concerns and social distrust mount, and human life retreats indoors, “vagabond” could be losing its appeal. And with its associations ranging from unhoused people to social parasites, “vagabond” may require judicious use in public. That’s OK with me. I’ll give “my” word the special treatment it deserves, and choose contexts that welcome its promise of a story.

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SOURCES: Google dictionary ( “vagabond,” “vagrant,” and related entries); Cambridge English Dictionary ( “vagabond,” “vagrant”); Merriam-Webster Dictionary ( “vagabond”); ( “vagabond”).

A version of this article appeared as a post on NYU’s English Language Institute blog on August 26, 2021.