My Personal Contretemps

I recently read an interesting article that mentioned since 1960 the working vocabulary of Americans has dropped from 25,000 words to 10,000 words!!! Does that mean my mother and father who only had a high school education had a larger working vocabulary than I do as someone who has earned a Master’s degree (and a Bachelors in English to boot!!)? This statistic is definitely something to think about. And, I guess, in my own small way by having this site, I am helping people improve their vocabulary. At least I hope so . . . .

The article also mentioned a website called On this site, you can ‘test’ your vocabulary. You will be given a word. If you answer it correctly, you will get a slightly harder word. If you miss it, the next word will be easier. For every correct word that you get, the site will donate 20 grains of rice through the United Nations to help end world hunger. I have spent some time on this site since my contretemps trying to get up to the highest level which is 50. So far, I’ve only made it to level 44. But in the process, I have come across some dandy words. Words that I will be trying to learn to incorporate into my working vocabulary. Words like contretemps.

Contretemps ( kon-truh-tahnz) is a noun that we get from the French. Pronouncing the word sounds so lovely — such a contrast to what it means. Contretemps is a mishap, an inopportune occurrence. It is an embarrassing mischance, an unforeseen event that disrupts the normal course of things, an inopportune occurrence.

My tripping and falling last week was definitely a contretemps. It was a mishap of inopportune occurrence. It was unforeseen. It definitely disrupted my normal, daily routine. The results are embarrassing — being seen with road rash on my face and huge swollen lips isn’t exactly something that I want to share with the world.

Have you ever accidentally spilled your drink at dinner in front of someone you were trying to impress? That would be a contretemps. Sometimes children will say something in front of someone that is true but also embarrassing. That would be a contretemps. Have you accidentally called a mild acquaintance by the wrong name? That would be a contretemps.

Another word that I learned that fit my experience so aptly was knap. Knap (nap – with a long A sound) means to strike sharply, to break or chip with sharp blows. Well, I must say that I certainly did knap my teeth on the asphalt. So that two of my teeth are chipped! I definitely knapped my teeth sharply.

However, the breaking or chipping with sharp blows usually refers to stone and not to teeth. So, someone who is a sculptor knaps at stone or marble as he is creating his sculpture. Native American Indians would knap flint to make arrowheads.

I highly recommend that you visit Not only will it help you improve your vocabulary, but you can help to ease world hunger in an easy simple way.

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