The “Master List”:  Must-Know Vocabulary in any Foreign Language, Categorized

 

            No matter what language you’re speaking, there are certain conversation topics that arise repeatedly on an almost daily or at least weekly basis, focusing on basic concerns like food, plans, thoughts, feelings, transportation, and the weather.  Such discourse makes frequent use of a subset of nouns, conjunctions, prepositions, action verbs, and key phrases.  These words represent a fundamental wordstock that constitutes the foundation of everyday speech in a language, with which you must be intimately familiar to hold basic conversation. 

If you approach this vocabulary systematically, you’ll familiarize yourself with it rapidly, and thereby be well-equipped to overcome one of the most difficult hurdles of learning a foreign tongue:  how to communicate basic concepts, requests, and needs to native speakers.  Similar lists like these exist which purport to detail the “1,000 most commonly used words,” but for your convenience, I’ve not only listed, but organized and categorized this basic vocabulary for you.  I’ve grouped the words and phrases into specific, easy-to-recognize, alphabetized categories a priori, with the words in each group alphabetized themselves.  Remember that even if you memorize all these words, you cannot necessarily go and string them together to make sentences, without some additional study of grammar and conversational practice; in languages, after all, words are not isolated but often exist in “set phrases” that have evolved to precisely fit specific situations, and you’ll have to familiarize yourself with these.  However, for both speaking and listening comprehension, a large and ready vocabulary of everyday terms is the basis for building your conversational skills, so this list should be a useful reference for you.

            The listing below is extensive and covers the sorts of nuts-and-bolts conversations you’re likely to encounter on a regular basis in a foreign language.  I’ve also thrown in a few categories with useful words that can be used while you’re still a beginner or intermediate level in conversation (e.g., grammatical words or reference sources to ask native speakers how to say something), as well as what you might call “layperson specialized categories,” the sort of vocabulary that has more or less spilled over from technical fields into everyday speech in industrialized countries, and which you’ll encounter frequently enough that knowledge of it can build your confidence.  Words like “pliers,” “asteroid,” “hurricane,” “squirrel,” and “peninsula”—as well as some categories like “education” and “language”—are in this vein.  They’re the kinds of words that emerge in watercooler conversations or grace the lines of newspaper articles, and you’ll probably find that they’re remarkably helpful, topical, and utilized to a surprising degree when you’re ready to engage in regular banter with native speakers.  They’re those infamous “tip-of-the-tongue” words, the vocabulary that you reach for in a conversation but are often not as familiar with as you’d like.  I’ve also included quite a few medical and health-related terms in part since I’m a doctor and, well, a carpenter would know a lot about hammers and wood.  But health-related terms are important in a general sense, and you’ll want to have some familiarity with this vocabulary in case you wind up feeling a bit under the weather (or are helping out someone else who is).

Depending on what language you’re studying, snatch up a high-quality dictionary between English and that language—the type of dictionary that rains down a plethora of example sentences alongside the definitions of the words themselves, as well as distinguishes fine shades of meaning (e.g., “save a file on a computer” vs. “save money at the supermarket”)—and try to master the words in each category, one by one.  Don’t worry about memorizing every single word on here at a single sitting; just use this list as a guideline for the vocabulary you need to know, and review it periodically to ascertain the gaps and errors in the wordstock of your foreign language.  When using the list, try to learn the words in blocks, category-by-category.  It can be also helpful to learn the words as antonymic pairs like “push/pull,” “happy/sad,” “wet/dry,” “shallow/deep,” and so on. 

            I’ve intentionally omitted some obvious categories like salutations and greetings, personal pronouns, forms of “be,” and definite/indefinite articles, which are generally among the first things you’ll learn for a foreign tongue, anyway.  I suspect that this list is much longer than one that a Wes Ulm of the 19th century would have designed—there are many more essential categories, and more words filling up each of those categories.  This, of course, reflects the proliferation of technology, appliances, and generalized complexity in our lives today, as compared to 100 years ago.  But languages in general have also become richer in the process and, so long as the information is categorized as below, it’s still amply digestible. 

            There is some redundancy and overlap in the lists below, but this is intentional; it’s useful to see how some of these words rear their heads in multiple areas of communication, and above all I’m trying to make this list user-friendly, so that you can scan a given category and get a comprehensive list of “must-know” vocabulary. 

 

Actions, basic; or expressions of state (verbs, chiefly transitive): abate, abbreviate, abet, accede, accelerate, accept, act, annoy, approach, break, bring, bring about, brush (many senses), can, climb, come, continue, cover, crush, cut, deflect, deny, deviate, dig, distribute, enter, escape, go, grab, harass, have, hide, hold, hurry, keep, lay, leave, let go, lick, maintain, massage, may, move, place/put, point, possess, pretend, pull, push, raise, react, refuse, remove, return, rise, rotate, row, rub, scoop, show, sit, smack, smash, splash, spray, stand, stare, stay, stir, store, strike, stuck, take, tear (vb), tickle, tie, toss, touch, trapped, trim, wait, work

 

Adverbs, modifiers of action and description, degrees: apparently, at all (not at all), basically, completely, entirely, especially, essentially, even, ever, finally, initially, just, not, only, partly, rather, somewhat, totally, very, wholly

 

Amounts (see Quantity, below)

 

Animals and pets, familiar: (Note:  This is always a tricky category because there are so many animals and you may not encounter them on a regular basis in a foreign country, but people will often mention them in descriptions of a place’s physical milieu and, of course, animals are always popular for metaphors—the sort of “busy as a beaver” or “regal as a lion” sorts of statements.  Obviously, some animals are also popular as pets.)

 

aardvark (well, not really, but what a name), animal, ant, bark (of dog), bear, bee, beetle, bird, bug, butterfly, cage, cat, caterpillar, chicken, clam, claw, cockroach, cow, crab, dog, duck, firefly, fish, fly, fur, gerbil, goose, Guinea pig, hamster, hippopotamus (just kidding), horse, insect, lion, lizard, lobster, maggot, monkey, mouse, mosquito, moth, owl, paw, pet, pig, pigeon, rat, shark, snake, squirrel, tail, tiger, turtle, wag, whale, whiskers, worm, zoo

 

Appliances (see House and Home, below)

 

Art/music:  architecture, art, artist, classical, clay, concert, draw. drawing, museum, paint, painter, painting, pottery, rhythm, rock ‘n’ roll, talented, timing, sculpture, violin

 

Astronomy:  asteroid, atmosphere, comet, galaxy, meteor, moon, space, star, sun, universe, world

 

Athletics (see Sports, below)

 

Attitudes toward people/things, personal qualities: able, ambitious, annoyed, appalling, arrogant, astute, brave, capable, competent, courageous, courteous, determined, disappointed, dislike, friendly, generous, hard, hate, impolite, intelligent, intense, irritated, kind, lazy, like, love, mean, naïve, nice, polite, resilient, rough, rude, sarcastic, smart, stable, stupid, strong, stubborn, tough, weak, witty

 

Automobile/driving terms (sometimes technical but frequently useful):  ability (to drive), accelerator (gas pedal), accident, antifreeze, automobile, axle, blink, brake(s) (noun and verb), bumper, bumper sticker, collision, curb, drive, driver’s license, flash, garage, gas station, gasoline, headlights, ignition key, junkyard, keys, kilometers/miles, license plate, parking meter, pothole, pump, speed, steering wheel, tow truck, tune-up, windshield, windshield wiper

 

Behaviors, 5 senses, basic functions (verbs):  awake/wake up, delicious, dream, drink, eat, feel, flavor, hear, nightmare, odor, see, sleep/go to sleep, smell, sniff, stink, taste, tasty, watch

 

Berries/small fruits and vegetables:  berry, blueberry, broccoli, cauliflower, cherry, cranberry, strawberry

 

Beverages:  coffee, juice, milk, milkshake, soda, tea

 

Bodies of water (see Geography, below)

 

Body and body parts:  ankle, arm, armpit, back, beard, blink, blood, body, bone, brow, buttocks, calf (back of lower leg), chin, ear, earlobe, elbow, eye, eyebrow, eyelash, eyelid, fat (n), finger, fist, foot, forehead, gum, hair, hand, head, heel, hip, jaw, joint, knee, knuckle, lap, leg, lip, mouth, muscle, nail, nape, neck, nose, palm (of hand), physical, scalp, shin, shoulder, skin, sole (of foot), spine, stomach, tailbone, temple, thigh, throat, thumb, toe, tongue, tooth, wink, wrist

 

Business:  appointment, arrange, business trip, errand, ID card, meeting,

 

Categorization terms:  kind, sort, type

 

Caution words (see Emergency, below)

 

Certainty/doubt/knowledge:  ambiguous, anonymous, assure, aware of, believe, certain, clear, confirm, definitely, deny, doubt, expect, identity, ignorant, ignore, incredible, know, likely, maybe, notice, perhaps, plausible, possibly, probably, refute, skeptical, supposed to, surely, uncertain, unsure

 

Cleaning supplies and actions:  bleach, broom, clean (v), detergent, mop, soap, sponge, sweep, wipe

 

Clothing and personal items/fashion: apron, bathing suit, belt, bikini, boots, button, cap, closet, clothes, coat, collar, crease, cuff, dress (noun and verb), fabric, fashion, fit, glasses, glove/mitten, hanger, hat, hem, hole, knit, lingerie (if you’re so inclined), lining, lipstick, mascara, nail polish, pants, pocket, robe, sandal, sash, scarf, sew, shirt, shoes, skirt, sleeve, slippers, snap, socks, sunglasses/shades, stain, strap, sweater, swimsuit, thread, underwear, wear, wrinkle, zip, zipper

 

Collective terms, groups, items:  group, kit, pair, set, suite,

 

Colors: black, blue, gray, green, orange, purple, red, white, yellow

 

Commerce:  advertise, auction, available, bid, boycott, contract, deal, freight, pay, retail, shipment, signature, sold-out, transaction, wholesale,

 

Communications:  accent, add, advice, aloud (reading), answer (including telephone), apologize, argue, articulate, blurry, broach (a topic), busy (telephone) call, chat, chatter, conversation, counsel, debate, deceive, delete, demand, demonstrate, describe, digress, discuss, display, eavesdrop, emphasize, explain, hang up (telephone), holler, hotline, information, interrupt, lie, make up (fabricate), mention, miscommunication, misleading, misunderstanding, overhear, perplexed, rambling, recommend, relay, report, say, scream, secret, shout, speak, stutter, suggest, talk, tell, truth, voice, whisper, yell

 

Comparisons (see Quantity, below)

 

Competition (see Sports/Athletics, below)

 

Conditions/descriptions of things, situations and people (mostly adjectives, many antonymic pairs):  absent-minded, age, agonizing, amazed, amorphous, astonished, attractive, bald, beautiful, boring, bright, busy, circumstance, clean, complex, complicated, confused, conspicuous, correct (vb and adj), crucial, damp, dangerous, dark, deep, difficult, dim, dirty, disabled, drunk, dry, easy, elegant, empty, essential, exciting, fake, false, famous, fast, fat, foolish, fortunate, fragile, frail, full, fun, funny, gloomy, hairy, hard, harmful, hazardous, idiotic, imminent, important, impressive, intelligent, interesting, light, loose, manner/way (of doing), mystery, mysterious, necessary, notorious, obvious, old, pleasant, poor, powerful, powerless, pretty, prompt, rich, romantic, rough, safe, secure, sexy, shade, shadow, shallow, simple, singlehandedly, slippery, slow, smooth, soft, stable, stingy, strange, superficial, superfluous, suspicious, tedious, thin, tight, ugly, unfortunate, unnecessary, unpleasant, victim, weird, wet, young

 

Conflict/war/weapons:  aim, ambush, army, attack, battle, bomb, booby-trap, bullet, combat, contingency plan, defeat, decoy, defend, fight, gun, hit, kick, knife, military, navy, punch, shoot, stab, suffer, tank, terrorism, treaty, veteran, victory, violent, weapon 

 

Conjunctions, basic sentence connectors:  after, although, and, anyway, as, as long as/as soon as, because, before, besides, but, despite, either/or, from now on, however, if, neither/nor, nevertheless, nonetheless, then, therefore, when, whenever, whereas, whether (or not), while

 

Construction/building/structures:  beam, brick, building, bulldozer, construction, construction worker, crane, lightning rod, metal, mortar, paint, plaster, rust, skyscraper, tower,

 

Containers:  bottle, bowl, box, can, carton cap, cup, glass, lid, jar, mug, surface, tray

 

Cooking (see Foods, below)

 

Cosmetics and make-up:  eye shadow, lipstick, mascara, nail polish, rouge

 

Crime and punishment, security:  accuse, arrest, assault, bail, blackmail, blame, bodyguard, bounty, bounty hunter, bribe (noun and verb), bullet, burglar/burglary, clue, commit, convict, corruption, crime, demand, detective, drugs (narcotics), embezzlement, fine, forge, frame (verb), gang, guard, guilty, gun, innocent, handcuffs, jail, kidnapping, lost-and-found, murder, pardon, parole, perjury, pickpocket, police, prison, privacy, ransom, rape, release, revenge/vengeance, reward, rob, robbery, set up, smuggling, steal, strangle, suspect, theft, thief, tip, witness

 

Degrees (see Adverbs, above)

 

Directions, orientation, navigation, compass points: above, across, around, away/away from, back (side of), backward, behind, below (also in sense of “continuing” for a written document), beside, clockwise, counterclockwise, down, downstairs, east, facing, forward, front (in front of), heading for, in, inside-out, lane, left (side), next to, north, opposite, out, over, reverse, right (side), south, through, under, up, upside-down, upstairs, west, within

 

Doubt (see Certainty, above)

 

Drinks (see Beverages, above)

 

Eating utensils (see Foods, below)

 

Education/school/academia:  award/prize, book, class, chalk, chalkboard, college, course, detail, dictionary, due, education, encyclopedia, eraser, examination, grade, learn, overdue, philosophy, reference, scholarship, school, specialty, student, teacher, test, textbook, training, university

 

Emergency/caution words and phrases (extremely important; you may not use these words often, but you absolutely must know and internalize them): attention, avoid, care, careful, caution, dangerous, doctor, down there!, emergency, fire extinguisher, get away!, get back!, get down!, get out!, hospital, look out!, prohibited, pull over! (in a car), pull up!, risky, run!, take cover!, up there!, urgent, warning, watch out!, watch out below!, watch out around here!, watch out nearby!

 

Emotions/emotional expressions:  angry, anxious, bored, complain, cry, desperate, disgust, distress, emotion, envy, fear, feeling, furious, greedy, happy, hope, insecure, instinct, jealous, miserable, moan, nervous, rage, regret, relaxed, sad, satisfied, scared, secure, stressed, tears, upset, weep, whine

 

Entertainment/theater/movies:  audience, celebrity, channel, circus, clown, comedy, controversial, doll, drama, film, humor, movie, music, musical, play (verb and noun), playground, puppet, radio, show, stage, television, theater

 

Environment/outdoors:  atmosphere, fing, hiking, pollution, toxic

 

Etiquette:  bow (in some Asian countries), cheers! (at a toast), congratulations, excuse me!, flatter, please!, shake hands, thanks! (many variations), toast (among a group), you’re welcome

 

Face, facial expressions:  face, frown, grimace, grin, laugh, smile, wince

 

Family and relatives: (note that some languages will have a much greater variety of terms than English, e.g. differentiate between paternal and maternal uncles, etc.) aunt, brother, cousin, family, father, first cousin (once removed), mother, nephew, niece, parents, relatives, sister, twins, uncle

 

Farming/agriculture:  barbed-wire, barn, crop, farm, grain, hay, livestock, seed, shed, stable, weed, windmill

 

Flowers/plants:  garden, flower, flowerpot, rose, stem, vase

 

Foods, cooking, and eating utensils, basic (these will naturally vary geographically in importance): bacon, bake, beef, beverage, boil, bottle, bread, breakfast, Brussels sprouts, butter, cake, can, candy, cap, carrot, carton, celery, cheese, chicken, chocolate, chopsticks (in Asian languages especially), cook, cookie, crab, crackers, crumb, crust, cup, diet, dinner, dish, drink, eat, egg, fat (on meat), fish, flour, food, fork, fruit, fry, glass, ice, ice cream, ingredient, jelly, ketchup, kitchen, knife, ladle, lettuce, lid, lobster, lunch, mayonnaise, meal, meat, mix, mustard, napkin, noodle, pan, pasta, peanut, peanut butter, pepper, plate, popcorn, pork, pot, pour, recipe, rice, salt, sandwich, sausage, shrimp, snack, soup, sour, spoon, stir, straw (for drinking), sugar, toaster, tomato, tuna, veal, vegetable, wrap, yogurt

 

Frequency (see Time Expressions, below)

 

Furniture (see House and Home below)

 

Games (see Recreation below)

 

Geography, bodies of water: bay, beach, border, city, coast, continent, country, creek, frontier, globe, island, lake, land, mountain, nation, ocean, peninsula, province, river, sea, shore, state, town, world

 

Government/law/legal system: administration, attorney, candidate, cemetery, census, certificate, coffin, court, curfew, dead, death, defendant, exile, flag, forensics, funeral, government, grave, guilty, humane, humanity, illegal, innocent, institute, judge, judgment, jury, justice, law, lawyer, owner, party (political), plaintiff, police, policy, politics, president, society, sue, verdict, vote, will, witness

 

Grooming/hygiene and toiletries: bathroom, brush (v—hair and teeth), cream, dandruff, dental floss, deodorant, gargle, hairbrush, hairdryer, lotion, mirror, razor, reflection, shampoo, shave, shaving cream, sink, soap, toilet, toothbrush, toothpaste, toothpick, wash, washcloth

 

Health/medicine:  allergic, allergy, appearance, artery, bacteria, bandage, blow (nose), breastfeeding, breath, breathe, bump, burn, care for, choke, cold(n), contagious, cough, cut, doctor, fever, flu, germ, headache, healthy, hospital, hurt, illness, injury, itch, jam, laboratory, lump, medicine, nosebleed, numb, nurse, pain, pale, pant, poison, prescription, radiation, scanner, scratch, severe, sick, sneeze, sore, spit, stub, tired, ultrasound, vein, virus, vomit, wheelchair, wound, X-ray

 

House and home, furniture, appliances:  address, alarm, alarm clock, appliances, apron, attic, basement, bathroom, bathtub, bed, bedroom, blanket, blender, candle, carpet, ceiling, chair, chimney, chores, clean, comfortable, company (houseguests), counter, cradle/crib, cupboard, curtain, dining room, dishwasher, door, doorbell, downstairs, drain, drawer, dust, dustpan, enter, evict, exit, faucet, fence, floor, furnace, garbage, garden, hairbrush, hallway, hamper, handle, (coat)hanger, home, hose, house, hut, kitchen, knock, lamp, lawnmower, light bulb, living room/den, mat, microwave oven, oven (conventional), patio, pillow(case), porch, rake, refrigerator, rent, roof, rug, scrub, seat, shed, shelf, shower, sink, smoke detector, soap, stairs, stove, table, threshold, toaster, toilet, toothbrush, towel, trash, trashcan, upstairs, vase, wall, wash, well, window, yard

 

Hygiene and toiletries (see Grooming and make-up, above)

 

Ideas, thought, and abstractions: axiom, basis, belief, concept, conscious, fact, factor, guess, idea, imagine, notion, pattern, philosophy, principle, reality, skeptical, suggestion, theory,

 

Indefinite pronouns:  any, anybody, anyhow, anything, anytime, anyway, anywhere, everybody, everything, everywhere, somebody, somehow, something, sometime, somewhere

 

Industry/industrial terms:  factory, inventory, manufacture, store (verb), storage, update,

 

Jewelry:  bracelet, brooch, diamond, earring, necklace, pendant, ring,

 

Journalism/mass media:  column, editor, editorial, journalism, magazine, newspaper, report, reporter, subscription,

 

Knowledge (see Certainty, above)

 

Language:  comma, define, euphemism, grammar, language, letter, look up, mean (be defined as), period, pronunciation, proverb, saying, sentence, spell, vocabulary, word

 

Law and legal system (see Government, above)

 

Leisure activities:  alcohol, backpack, bar, break (in day), camping, cigar, cigarette, drink (alcoholic), habit, hiking, nap, picnic, snack

 

Locations/places (used e.g. in giving directions):  across the street, area, around the corner, directions, farm, field, inside, landmark, mark, nearby, neighborhood, outside, path, region, room, side, sidewalk, square, street, vicinity

 

Make-up (see Cosmetics and make-up, above)

 

Materials (see Natural world, below)

 

Mathematical terms (used in daily activities and in school): add, decimal, equals, fractions (including fractional expressions), minus, plus, square root, substract,

 

Media, books, publishing:  glossary, index, page, spine,

 

Medical terms (see Health/Medicine, above)

 

Mental actions/states/associated words: addiction, assume, believe, bother, brain, concentrate, concern, confuse, conscience, conscious, consider, decide, deliberate, desire, emotion, feeling, flashback, forget, guess, hope, illusion, intentional, intuition, learn, memory, mind (n and v), need, obsessed, offend, opinion, perceive, presume, remember, speculate, tend, tendency, think, understand, unintentional, upset, want, wonder, worry

 

Money/finances: account, bank, bankrupt, bargain, bill (many senses), borrow, card, cash, charge, cheap/inexpensive, check, coin, compensate, cost, counterfeit, credit, credit card, currency, damages, debt, earn, eligible, estate, exchange (rate), expensive, export, fee, haggle, heads (on coin), import, incentive, income, inherit, insurance, interest (rate), landlord, lend, loan, money, mortgage, poor, price, profit, refund, rent, rich, salary, save (money or time), spend (money or time), stock market, tails (on coin), tax, tenant, waste, wealthy

 

Motions, descriptors of (note: these are chiefly intransitive verbs; transitive verbs, implying actions done to objects, are listed in the “Actions” section above): blow (wind), bounce, chase, creep, dance, extend, fall, float, flow, hop, jerk, jump, kneel, leak, lie (down), limp, ooze, pass, pull over (in a car), recoil, run (away), rush, sail, scatter, shake, shiver/tremble, sidle, sink, skip, somersault, spin, squat, squirm, stretch, stumble, trip, turn, twist, walk (along, around, by, past, through),  

 

Movies (see Entertainment, above)

 

Music (see art, above)

 

Musical instruments: trombone, trumpet, violin

 

Natural world:  acorn, air, beach, branch, bubble, bush, clay, cliff, dirt, earth, fall, fire, forest, fountain, grass, hill, lake, land, leaf, lightning, mud, ocean, oak, pine, plant, powder, quicksand, rock, sand, sea, season, shine, shrub, soil, spring, stick, stone, summer, swamp, thunder, tree, twig, valley, water, wave, winter, wood

 

Natural disasters/emergencies:  earthquake, flood, hurricane, storm, tornado, whirlpool,

 

Nuts:  almond, chestnut, peanut (not technically a nut), walnut

 

Occupations:  apprentice, architect, artist, basic(s), construction worker, doctor, engineer, field (of expertise), lawyer, painter,

 

Office materials and equipment/work/projects:  application, bonus, building, career, checklist, concentrate/focus, copier, copy, counter, desk, efficient, elevator, file, filing cabinet, fire (from a job), folder, hire (to a job), interview, job, memo, notepad, office, performance, photocopier, poster, prepare, presentation, promotion, raise, responsibility, retired, slide, staple, stapler, stress, supervise, supervisor/boss, task, water cooler, water fountain, work

 

People and group terms:  adolescent, adult, baby, boy, child, club, collection, combination, crowd, gather, girl, group, herd, individual, member, name, packed (e.g. a theater, concert), people, person, popular

 

Personal possessions, basic:  card, driver’s license, glasses, purse, wallet

 

Personality traits: astute, bigoted, diligent, evil, good, intelligent, judgmental, kind, malicious, mean, prejudiced, sweet, vicious

 

Pets (see Animals, above)

 

Personal qualities (see Attitudes, above)

 

Photography (very useful words when visiting a country):  camcorder, camera, flash, shine, zoom

 

Position words (mainly prepositions and adjectives): above, across from, along, among, around, at, back, behind, below, beneath, beside, between, bottom, by, catty-corner from, diagonal, down, east, far, front, in, in front of, here, inside, near, next to, north, opposite, out, outside, over, overlapping, south, there, through, throughout, top, under, west 

 

Prepositions, non-position, basic:  about, according to, as opposed to, by, despite, except, for, from, including, instead of, in the vicinity of, let alone, like, of, regarding, regardless of, to, with, without

 

Problem situations/predicaments:  caught, resort to, solve, stuck, trapped, worried

 

Public places:  castle, cemetery/graveyard, city hall, fountain, grave, hall, institution, library, monument, park

 

Quality/desirability:  atrocious, awesome, awful, bad, deplorable, excellent, fake, false, fantastic, genuine, good, main, outstanding, perfect, phony, prefer, principal, real, repugnant, reprehensible, terrible, useless, valuable, wonderful, worthless, worthwhile

 

Quantity and comparisons:  about/approximately/roughly, all of, amount, as much as, category, count, downplay, enough, estimate, extreme, few/a few, fold (as a multiple of), how many/much, less than, little, lots/a lot, majority, many, measure, minority, more than, most, much, piece, random, same (as), several, similar, some, stack/pile, times (as multiplier—“twice as,” “three times as”), too, too little, too much, underestimate, various, whole/entire

 

Reading/writing/stationery:  author, boldface, book, clip, edit, editor, envelope, fill out (form), font, form, handwriting, italics, letter, mail, package, page, paper, pen, pencil, pencil sharpener, postcard, print, printer, read, scribble, sign, stamp, staple, text, type, write

 

Recreation (like Foods, this category is somewhat culturally-dependent): cards (playing cards), doll, fishing, game, hunter, hunting, play, playground, relax, shuffle, skate, skateboard, ski, slide, swim, swing, swimming pool, a (spinning) top, toy

 

Relationships between people/objects:  affect, agree, appear, as, assemble/congregate, balance, behalf (on behalf of), blame, common, compare, consensus, convince, correspond, count on/depend on/rely on, deal with, different, differentiate, disagree, distinguish, effect, enemy, familiar, fault, foe, follow, friend, identical, imitate, interfere, in person, lead, less, match(ing), more, obey, persuade, protect, replace, role model, same, seem, separate, sequence, series, similar, stranger, than, together, trust, turn to (for help), vice versa, visit

 

Relatives (see Family, above)

 

Religion/philosophy:  church, creed, imam, minister, mosque, phenomenon, preacher, rabbi, religion, (religions, specific), soul, spirit, superstition, synagogue, temple, worship

 

School/scholastic pursuits (see Education, above)

 

Shapes, basic:  angle, circle, cone, crooked, curve, cylinder, diamond, dot, fold, knot, line, loop, orbit, oval, point, pyramid, rectangle, spiral, square, squiggle, taper, tip, triangle, zig-zag

 

Shopping:  bag, bill, brand, buy, cart, cash, cash register, closed (a shop), counter, customer, detergent, discount, label, line (stand/get in line), list, open (a shop), paper towels, receipt, sell, shopping, store/shop, supermarket, tag, warehouse

 

Size/spatial dimensions:  big, cramped, crowded, enlarge, enormous, expand, extend, gigantic, high, large, long, low, medium, narrow, size, small, spacious, tall, tiny, vast, wide

 

Social situations/relations:  entertain, invitation, manners, party, relationship

 

Sounds:  audible, belch, clap (applaud), groan, grunt, hiccup, hum, loud, noise, quiet, silent, soft, sound, splash, squeal, whistle, yell

 

Space (see Astronomy, above)

 

Sports/athletics/competition:  achieve, athlete, ball, base, baseball, basketball, bat, billiards/pool, catch, diamond, dive, dodge, effort, failure, field, football, game, goal, golf, gravel, gymnastics, hesitate, hit, kick, lap (in a speed race), lose, match, medal, miss, objective, play, score, soccer, somersault, sports, stadium, strive, success, swim, tennis, throw/toss, tie (as in a draw), track, trophy, win

 

State/status/situation of person or thing: absent, alive, bachelor, bankrupt, broken, die, divorced, employed, engaged, exhausted, fatigue, healthy, hungry, live, marriage, married, pregnant, present, retired, sick, single, step/stage, stamina, thirsty, tired, wedding, well

 

Stationery (see Reading, above)

 

Technology/science:  acid, antenna, assemble/put together, battery, calculator, cassette, CD/DVD, chat, clock, code, compact disk, compass, computer, device, disk, download, electricity, Email, file (electronic), fluorescent light, gas, gauge, hang up (telephone), hard drive, keyboard, layer, liquid, log in/out, machine, melt, microphone, mouse (on a computer), network, out of order, password, play(er) (for VCR’s, computers), plug (electrical), procedure, ruler, save (a file), screen, socket (electrical), solid, speaker (of a radio), steam/vapor, telegram, telephone, television, typewriter, upload, username, vat, vent, vibrate, watch (n), wire, to work (function)

 

Theater (see movies, above)

 

Time measurement and expressions, frequency: about to, after, again, already, always, before, century, common, constantly, continuous, day, decade, delay, early/earlier, eon, era, event, ever, forever, future, immediately, just, late/later, millennium, month, never, normal, now, occasionally, often, on time/punctual, once, past, permanent, postpone, premature, present, rarely, seldom, sequence, series (including specific terms—“at a time,” “in a row”). sometimes, spend (time), still, suddenly, take (time), temporary, time, usual, week, year

 

Times of day:  afternoon, dawn, dusk, evening, midnight, morning, night, noon, sunrise, sunset

 

Toiletries (see Hygiene, above)

 

Tools, common, and actions with them: adjust, axe, bar, bolt, blowtorch, chain, cord, dig, flashlight, hammer, hardware, match, metal, nails, needle, net, nut, pick, plastic, pliers, pole, rope, scissors, screw, screwdriver, shovel, slot, strap, string, tape, tool, torch, wire, wrench

 

Toys (see Recreation, above)

 

Trade (see Commerce, above)

 

Transportation/movement (other than automobiles):  accelerate, airplane, bicycle, boat, bring, car, cart, come, fall, fly, fuel, gasoline, get off, get on, go, highway, journey, jump, move, oar/paddle, oil, park (v), platform, raft, rail, ride, run, ship, speed, station, steer, street, streetcar, subway, take, taxicab, tow truck, track, traffic, traffic light/stoplight, train, travel, trip, truck, vacation, voyage, wagon, walk, walkway, wheel

 

Travel/vacationing:  camera, customs (office at airport as well as traditions in a society), film, hitchhiking, jet lag, souvenir, time zone, tour guide, tourist, travel, visa, zoom (on camera)

 

Treatment of/actions toward other people:  criticize, damage, harm, help, hurt, insult, punish, serve, share, support, treat

 

Urban terms: downtown, highway, suburbs

 

Vacationing (see Travel, above)

 

War or weapons (see Conflict, above)

 

Weather/temperature/environment:  breeze, chilly, cloud, cold, dark, gale, heat, hot, hurricane, light, lightning, negative (temperature), positive (temperature), puddle, rain, sky, storm, sun, thunder, tornado, typhoon, warm, wind

 

Work (see Office, above)

 

Writing (see Reading, above)

 

Miscellaneous: case, cause, chance, change, eliminate, experience, guide, happen/occur, issue, lap (formed when sitting down), layer, level, light, miss (a person when absent), missing/to be missing, news, opportunity, problem, ready, stripe, surprise, thing, threaten, tradition, trap, use

 

phrases—act like, afford to, are you kidding, albatross around the neck, arrive at (a consensus), as a matter of fact, as a result of, as long as, as much as, as soon as, at first, at the drop of a hat, blind as a bat, brush up on, burn the candle at both ends, by a factor of, can’t help it, compared to/relative to, could it be (that), crack one up, cross to bear, day after day/day by day, dish it out but can’t take it, do as you like, due to, each other/one another, enjoy oneself, for that matter, get in line, “get” it, get over (something), get to the point, get used to, give me a break, go too far, if anything, in charge, in fact, least of one’s problems, leave me alone, let alone (much less), let off steam, make a fool of oneself, no matter how/what, no wonder, none of your business, on the one/other hand, one after the other, rooted in, take a break, take your time, take on too much, take seriously, thanks to, the more the better, throw money around, throw out the baby with the bathwater, to the extent that, treat like, tricks of the trade, tricks up one’s sleeve, umpteenth (time, attempt), up to one’s old tricks again, we’re all in the same boat,

 

 

            The words in the above lists have several salient aspects that you should take careful note of.  First of all, as suggested in the introduction, you use a large fraction of the above words in your native language all the time, without really being cognizant of their use.  Many are elemental to everyday speech; others are situational and highly useful for a subset of cases in which they’re constantly invoked.  They represent the most natural stratum of speech, the vocabulary that’s just “always there” within instant reach.  You don’t need to devote much conscious thought at all to utilizing the above words; they’re usually the first ones that arise in your head, and you’re constantly in need of them, because they describe basic activities, emotions, and relationships that you encounter on a nearly daily or at least weekly basis. 

            In practical daily conversation, vocabulary for specifying position, frequency, or emotional state is in constant demand.  For example, if you can’t say that object A is above, behind, near, around, next to, or under object B, you’ll be fumbling around uncomfortably in your daily discourse on an unpleasantly repetitive basis.  If you can’t say that A is similar to, different from, or the same as B, again you’ll have trouble in daily speech.  For perhaps 3/4 of the above vocabulary, if you’re missing a single one of these items from your wordstock, you’ll become stuck somewhere in the midst of even basic conversations, unable to impart what you’re intending.  Therefore, you should learn—and become intimately familiar with—every single one of the words above.  Some of the categories (like language, some body parts, some of the vocabulary in house/home and office) may not be as common in everyday speech in English, but they furnish vocabulary that will furnish you with the confidence to operate in the range of situations that you will encounter with speakers of a foreign language; it’s always handy to be able to ask a native speaker what word A means, or how to pronounce or spell word B.  You may not use all the items in the Food category everyday, but eating is a basic activity and it’s always valuable to be able to specify an order from a menu or pick your lunch at a diner, so this list is especially comprehensive.  Animals and geographic terms crop up frequently in conversation.  Likewise, many of the words in the “Emergency” or “Health” categories may not be used with the same frequency as others on the list but, since this vocabulary can be so crucial in urgent situations, it’s advisable to familiarize yourself with it. 

            Another conspicuous characteristic of the words above is their etymology.  The more basic a category or word group, the greater the likelihood that the words therein will hail from Anglo-Saxon (Old English) or Old Norse—both Germanic—sources, rather than the French, Latin, and Greek wellsprings that so thoroughly suffuse the English language.  Look at the “Positions” category, for example.  Nearly all of the words here derive from Anglo-Saxon.  Only around, front, and the corner in catty-corner have a French origin; across is of Latin pedigree, but had already been absorbed into Old English before the French-speaking Normans conquered England in 1066.  In practical terms, you can exploit this fact extensively if you’re learning another Germanic language like German, Dutch, or Swedish—the corresponding word will, more often than not, be the same or similar to that in English.  For example Dutch “boven” = English “above”; langs = along; ver = far (Dutch/German v pronounced like English f); bij = near (like English by); onder = under; over = over; tussen = between (similar to the tween part); uit = out.  Time and frequency expressions, likewise, generally stretch back to Anglo-Saxon days; in the above list, constantly, immediately, occasionally, rarely, and suddenly hail from French.  The rest of the vocabulary persists, in modified form, from Beowulf or Viking raider days, and is therefore easy to discern in other Germanic tongues. 

            Among the terms in the Quantity category, only “count” and “amount” were borrowed in from French—the rest of the vocabulary is Anglo-Saxon or Old Norse.  The same goes for Indefinite Pronouns (all Anglo-Saxon in origin), body parts (all Germanic except for gum, jaw, joint, muscle, palm, spine, and stomach), and animals:  Most of the critters confronted in city streets or in homes have names of Germanic origin, although cat, squirrel, lion, cockroach, lizard, and pigeon derive from the Romance languages or Latin.  (Animal, cage, and zoo are all of either French or Latin pedigree.)  All conjunctions except because and despite are Germanic, Anglo-Saxon in origin.  All of the basic vocabulary describing weather stems from Germanic sources.  Notably, only the terms describing extreme weather—hurricane, tornado, typhoon—as well as breeze originate outside the Germanic languages.  Colors are also possess Germanic source streams, aside from purple and orange. 

            In contrast, the lion’s share of the terms in the Government/Law and Crime & Punishment sections are of French or Greco-Latin origin.  All of the words depicting shapes ultimately hail from Greco-Latin, whether directly or via French (e.g. circle, square, and rectangle).  The Money/Finance and Commerce categories show a heavy Latin bias, as does Education:  Only book, learn, the over in overdue, and teacher hail from Germanic sources.  The same goes for automobile terms, industry, expressions of certainty or doubt, and art and music.  All of these categories have, in common, a role of depicting technical, refined, or “sophisticated” aspects of society that entail relatively high levels of education and/or social prestige, or pertain to endeavors that involve structure or organizational systems.  For European tongues in general (not just English), the prestige languages, historically, have been Greek, Latin, and French (as well as Italian for a brief period); consequently, nearly all languages, whether Romance or not, have tended to borrow from these source streams in devising terms for the “higher” elements of society.  (In contrast, Arabic and Mandarin Chinese, for example—languages which functioned as the idioms of advanced and ancient civilizations, and which are still in active use today—tend to generate such “sophisticated” vocabulary simply by compounding from their own base wordstock.  Simply because Arabic and Chinese were the prestige languages of their day during their most formative years, their speakers felt comparatively little need to borrow in from outside sources.)

            The other categories generally contain a more even mix of Germanic and Greco-Latin-derived vocabulary, with sprinklings of Arabic, Celtic, Chinese (typhoon and tea), and other languages here and there.  The Family category, curiously, has about an equal mixture of Germanic and Greco-Latin derived vocabulary—we’d normally expect such basic words to be derived from English’s original Germanic wordstock.  The words “cousin, aunt, uncle, parents, relatives, niece, nephew,” and of course “family” itself are all of French (and thence Latin) origin.  Modern German and Dutch also demonstrate this to varying degrees, a marker of the historical strength enjoyed by the French language as a lingua franca on the European continent.

            The list above is obviously incomplete, and mastering a language—one’s own or a foreign tongue—is a constantly evolving process.  Yet the vocabulary above should give you a firm foundation, and assist you by providing a tangible framework and attainable goals, category-by-category, that will endow you with the basic wordstock needed for everyday speech.  Hopefully it will supply you with a bridge toward confidence, that all-important state of mind which will facilitate your attempts at initiating and carrying conversations with native speakers—ultimately, the best and perhaps only way to become truly fluent in a foreign language.

 

n      Wes Ulm

 

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