I remember the first time I looked up a word in the dictionary because I sincerely wanted to know the word’s meaning. Previously, I looked up words only because a teacher made me or because I needed to fulfill some other academic task. In this particular case, however, a beautiful, young lady had said something about me, and I thought it was a compliment, but I wasn’t sure.
At the time, I was a senior at Siena College, and I had just applied to serve in the Peace Corps. When I mentioned this to Beth — a junior and an adorable cheerleader for the basketball team — she made the following comment: “Jim, you will do really well in the Peace Corps because you have such empathy for people.”
“Thank you,” I replied, though, quite honestly, I didn’t know the meaning of the word “empathy”; I had never heard it before. Fortunately, I was able to interpret her tone, her body language, and her surrounding words to correctly decipher her remark and respond to it. I suppose I could have admitted my ignorance and asked her to explain the word, but I was much too vain. So, when our cafeteria conversation ended, I returned to my dormitory to look up the word in the dictionary.
As I walked, I thought about the word “empathy.” It sounded a bit like “sympathy”: “sharing the feelings of another” (The American Heritage College Dictionary 1375). However, empathy sounded even more powerful, and my initial interpretation of this word proved to be true.
Empathy means “identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives” (The American Heritage College Dictionary 450). When I read the definition, I felt a mixed surge of emotions. On one hand, I experienced the full joy of Beth’s compliment, but on the other hand, I felt a certain responsibility to live up to her high expectations. Though I haven’t seen or communicated with Beth in well over 40 years, her comment stayed with me, and the experience has instilled in me a love for new words and a love for stimulating conversations with various people.
As students, we were all taught to use our dictionary to look up the unfamiliar words we encountered in our reading. That’s great advice, but I would encourage everyone to go one step further. Rather than wait for these new words to come to you in your reading, seek out these words by talking to others who are new acquaintances: classmates, teachers, co-workers, and neighbors. If possible, try to move beyond greetings and small talk and into serious conversations about topics of common interest. Most likely, their backgrounds and their experiences are different from yours, and their comments and their stories will enlighten you in ways that books cannot. For while the written word has long lasting power, the spoken word — especially a word spoken in a one-on-one conversation — may have a more immediate impact on your consciousness.
Understanding a word’s meaning, however, is not the only benefit of learning new words. When you become familiar with a new word, an amazing process begins in your mind. That word doesn’t just sit there and wait to be understood again and again. No, the word — like a young child — grows and develops and demands to be seen and heard. So one day, when you least expect it, that new word will show up in your own speaking or your own writing. Thus, you will become a better speaker and a better writer because you were willing to read new texts, to talk to new people, to look up unfamiliar words in the dictionary, and to allow those words to communicate the empathy you have for others.