General characteristics of English Vocabulary


Features of English vocabulary

    1. English words are mainly polysemantic, i.e. they have more than one possible meaning. The meaning of most English words is a complex structure of meanings.
    2. English has a lot of borrowed words (ca 80%) which were mainly adopted from different Indo-European languages (most borrowed words came from Latin and French).
    3. English is characterised by well-developed synonymy with many sources for synonyms.
    4. English is characterised by well-developed homonymy (e.g. bare/bear, hair/hare etc.).
    5. Most words in English are mono- and disyllabic.
    6. English has a unique phenomenon: phrasal verbs, which consist of a verb and a preposition or adverb that modifies or changes the meaning; e.g. ‘give up’ is a phrasal verb that means ‘stop doing’ something, which is very different from ‘give’.
    7. Many words have rather general meaning specified by context.
    8. English has a special type of word-formation — conversion (zero-derivation).


Stylistic characteristics of English vocabulary

 We can distinguish two groups of words in the language:

  • Stylistically neutral (unmarked) words can be used in any type of texts, by everyone and everywhere. They make a core of vocabulary;
  • Stylistically marked words are chosen for specific situations depending on their stylistic characteristics (i.e. its functional style).

Functional style (or register) is a system of expressive means peculiar to a specific situation of communication. Functional style as a subsystem of language has own peculiar features in what concerns vocabulary means, syntactical constructions, and even phonetics.

 Sample variations of style:

1. The inclement climatic conditions obliged the President to return earlier than scheduled. (highly formal style)

The president was obliged to return earlier than planned due to poor weather conditions. (formal to neutral style)

The president had to go back sooner than he’d planned because the weather was so bad. (neutral to informal style)


2. Prior to the discovery of America, potatoes were not consumed in Europe. (highly formal style)

Before America was discovered, potatoes were not eaten in Europe. (formal to neutral style)

Before they discovered America, Europeans didn’t eat potatoes. (neutral to informal style)

 There are two primary types of style—informal and formal which require using of specific groups of stylistically marked words.

Stylistically marked words may be divided into several subgroups depending on their stylistic characteristics (Fig.2)

Fig.2 Groups of stylistically marked words and neutral words in vocabulary


Formal style

Formal English is used in official, literary, academic, etc. context.

Formal functional style uses a variety of literary (bookish) words which include several specific subgroups.

Literary (bookish) words

Literary (bookish) words are ‘refined’ words are found mainly in fiction and poetry; most of them are polisyllabic and have Latin, French or Greek origin.

e.g. solitude, sentiment, fascination, fastidiousness, facetiousness, delusion, meditation, felicity, elusive, cordial, illusionary


Officialese words are used in official, bureaucratic language : “You are authorized to acquire the work in question by purchase through the ordinary trade channels.” (= We advise you to buy the book in the shop)


Officiallese Neutral/colloquial word
accomplish do / finish
assistance help
contact get in touch
henceforth from today



A term is a word or an expression that has an exact meaning or is limited to a specific subject or field, such as a particular branch of science, technology, trade or art (phonetics: bilingual, interdental, labialization, palatalization, glottal stop).


When translating terms, it is necessary to remember that many terms are polysemantic. They may have several meanings in different fields of science, and even in one and the same field. In this case it is important to thoroughly study the context: e.g. stage (in radio engineering) – каскад, фаза, стадия; (in rocket engineering) – ступень ракеты; stage (general meaning) – этап, фаза

Archaic and poetical words

Archaic and poetical words are outdated, obsolete words found mainly in historical novels and poetry.

e.g. ‘Thou’ and ‘thy’, ‘aye’ (‘yes’) and ‘nay’ (‘no’), afore (‘before’) etc.

 Informal style

Informal English is typically used in everyday, personal conversations. It is characterized by inclusion of colloquial words and some other stylistically marked groups of words.

Colloquial words

Colloquial words are characteristic of ordinary or familiar conversation or writing; they are informal, ‘relaxed’ words. Dictionaries often display colloquial words and phrases with the abbreviation ‘colloq.’ Typical colloquial words or expression are:

  • Phrasal combinations consisting of a general verb (usually ‘have’) + a verbal noun, such as to have a drink, to have a bite;
  • Phrasal verbs (to put up, to get on);
  • Intensifiers, such as fantastic, terrific;
  • Substitution words with a broad meaning (stuff, thing…);
  • Shortened words (abbreviations) (bike, hols, fridge…).


Slang is language of a highly colloquial style, considered as below the level of standard educated speech. Some linguists do not differentiate colloquial and slang words, while others underline that slang words are either new words or current words used in some special sense, and are mainly used by a specific social group, for example teenagers, prisoners, soldiers etc.

 “The world of slang is inhabited by odd creatures indeed: not by men but by guys, blighters and rotters with nuts for heads, mugs for faces, flippers for hands.”

Vulgar words

Vulgar words are rude, obscene words.

Dialect words

Dialect words are used in certain geographic locations. They are different from Standard English.

e.g. Tyneside dialect (Geordie)

Aught = anything

when, uh, when, uh, you come to clean your fires and aught and things like that, you just lifted the whole seat up

Bairn = child

…never used to hurry see the bairns then…

Gan = go

next thing you used to remember was the alarm clock ganning off the next day — it was time to gan back to work

Additional reading Visit the website of the British Library to listen to lexical variations of English in the UK


Professionalisms form so called “professional slang”; or “technical jargon” (e.g. medical jargon: ‘road map’—injuries incurred by going through a car windshield face first; ‘gas passer’—anesthesiologist).

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In what types of texts are stylistically neutral words used?

Show answer »

In any type of text.

In what situations are stylistically marked words used?

Show answer »

In specific situations depending on their stylistic characteristics

What is a functional style/register?

Show answer »

A system of expressive means peculiar to a specific situation of communication

Which stylistically marked groups of words are used in the formal style?

Show answer »

Bookish words, officialese, terms, archaisms

Which stylistically marked groups of words are used in the informal style?

Show answer »

Colloquial words, slang, vulgar words, dialect words, professional slang.

What do we call words that are specifically used by a particular branch of science, technology, trade or the arts?

Show answer »


What do we call words that are outdated or obsolete and used mainly in historical works and poetry?

Show answer »

Archaic and/or poetical words.

What do we call words that are highly colloquial, typically used in closed social groups, often metaphorical?

Show answer »

Slang words.

Are professionalisms typically used in formal or informal situations?

Show answer »

Informal situations. It is “professional slang.

Formal vs Informal English quiz

Which word is most likely a bookish/formal word?

80% of voters are dissatisfied with the way their country is being governed.

Which word is most likely a bookish/formal word?

Please indicate your marital status by ticking appropriate box in the form.

Показать ответ »

indicate/appropriate/marital status

Which word is most likely a bookish/formal word?

Passengers were stranded without food and beverages for hours.

Показать ответ »


Which word is most likely a bookish/formal word?

I am the ideal candidate for this job because I have substantial experience in this field

Показать ответ »


Which word is most likely a colloquial/slang word?

I can lose a few pounds without resorting to daft diets.

Показать ответ »


Which word is most likely a colloquial/slang word?

Call the police, somebody has walked off with my tablet.

Показать ответ »

walked off

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Changes in English vocabulary

Vocabulary system is not a rigid one. It is quite adaptive and closely connected with the life of the people speaking this language.

There are two types of changes that take place in the vocabulary system:

  • Quantitative changes imply that generally the total number of words is constantly increasing. Though quite a lot of words become obsolete and eventually drop out of the language, much more of new words appear every day.


  • Qualitative changes imply that old words develop and acquire new meanings.


e.g. meat: OE mete – any food. Now – only animal flesh

The meanings of very few words remain unchanged through ages. When a word acquires new meanings, they become polysemantic. Sometimes a polysemantic word may split into two or more words; as a result homonyms can come about.

A neologism is a new word or a phraseological unit or a meaning of an existing word which is:

  • felt by speakers as new, and
  • not included in most dictionaries yet.

Neologisms may appear in all spheres of life, but it’s true that much more neologisms appear in certain spheres of modern life. Some of these spheres are:

  1. New science and technology: faxable, tummytuck.
  2. 2.     Lifestyle, new sports, music and fashions: snowsurphing, beach-music, vougeing.
  3. Political and social life: eco-friendly, fattism.


Ways of forming neologisms:

  1. Word-building: e.g. ageism
  2. Change of meaning: e.g. dark-green
  3. New words borrowed from other languages: e.g. karaoke
  4. New set phrases: e.g. bedroom community


Some ways to translate neologisms:

Transcription, e.g. p.r. – пиар

Transliteration (in rare cases, not recommended), inauguration – инаугурация

Calquing — literal, word-for-word or root-for-root translation, nuclear umbrella – ядерный зонтик

Description/paraphrasing, high profile — яркий, очень заметный, выдающийся; runaways — предприятия, переведенные на другую территорию или за границу

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Additional reading: Visit the Wordspy website to check the database of neologisms in English.

An archaism is an outdated word or expression.


There are two types of archaisms:

1. Historisms are words denoting notions which do not exist now but they don’t pass out of use altogether.

e.g. bodkin, vassal, yeoman


2. Archaisms proper are the words which come out as a result of synonymic competition.

e.g. swoon (feel seasick), hap (chance)

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Etymology of English Words

English Vocabulary consists of two layers—the native stock of words and the borrowed stock of words. Numerically the borrowed stock of words is considerably larger than the native stock of words.

Native words comprise only approximately 20 % of the total number of words in the English vocabulary.

Native words consist of the following lexical and morphological units:

  • Indo-European elements(roots, affixes, words) can be found in many Indo-European languages
    • generic names: father, mother, brother… (Cf. brother – Bruder (Ger) – брат – fratello (It.))
    • parts of the body: nose, foot… (Cf. nose – nos (Pl) – naso (It.) – Nase (It))
    • names of animals: cow, swine…
    • names of plants: tree, birch, corn…(Cf. birch – Birke (Ger) – bříza (Cz))
    • parts of day: day, night…
    • some common adjectives: red, new…
    • numerals: one, two, three etc…
    • some common verbs: eat, know, be…
  • Common Germanic Elements can be found in some other Germanic languages: bear, hand, ship, house… (Cf: bear – bære (Danish) – Bär (Ger))
  • English proper elements exist only in the English language as originated from Anglo-Saxon: bird, boy, girl, lord, lady, woman, daisy, always etc.

Loan words (borrowed words)are taken from another language and modified according to the pattern of the receiving language. Borrowed words make around 80% of the total word stock in English.

Role and quantity of borrowed words in any given language depend on certain historical events:

1000 BC –The Celtic tribes invaded Britain (some Celtic words and proper names still remain in Modern English, mainly placenames)

e.g. Avon, druid,  bald,’cair-‘ means ‘fortified town,’ as in  Carlisle, Cumbria

43 BC –Roman occupation (names of cities etc.)

e.g. -ceaster (-chester, -caster) — a Roman station or walled town, as in Chester, Manchester etc.

500 AD –The invasion of Germanic tribes of the Angles, Saxons, Jutes


The beginning of the English language (Old English period). Also the period of early Latin loans, which came into English language through the languages of the Anglo-Saxon tribes. The tribes had been in contact with Roman civilization and had adopted many Latin words denoting objects belonging to that civilization long before the invasion of the Angles, Saxons and Judes into Britain.

e.g. cherry (Lat. cerasum), cup (Lat. cuppa) etc.

597 AD – Introduction of Christianity. The second tide of Latin loans, which penetrated to English when the English people were converted to Christianity.

e.g. priest, church, school

8 – 11 centuries – Scandinavian invasions

e.g. call, take, ask, husband, sk-words (sky, skirt)


1066 – The Norman conquest brought a lot of borrowed words of French origin, mainly administrative words: state, government, parliament; legal terms: court, judge, justice, crime, prison; military terms: army, war, soldier, officer, battle, enemy; educational terms: library, science, etc. The beginning of the Middle English period.

14-16 centuries – The Renaissance period – Greek, French, Italian, the 3d wave of Latin borrowings. The words of this period are mainly abstract and scientific words (e.g., nylon, molecular, vaccine, phenomenon, and vacuum).

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Additional reading: 10 Surprising Words The English Language Borrowed

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Words are borrowed by oral and written ways. In case of oral borrowing, the word is assimilated quicker.

Types of assimilation (adaptation to the norms of the recipient language):

 1. Phonetic assimilation

  • The loan word changes its sound-form according to phonetic norms of English, e.g.  The French long vowel [e] was changed into the diphthong [ei], e.g. cafe
  • The loan word changes its stress: e.g. French words have stress on the last syllable, e.g. honn’eur, rai’son but English disyllabic words tend to have their stress on the first syllable,  ‘honor, ‘reason.

2. Grammatical assimilation means that loan words start to change their grammatical forms in accordance with the standards of the English language. However, some words are not fully assimilated; for example, the following words have retained the plural of their native language: e.g.  phenomenon — phenomena; addendum — addenda; parenthesis – parentheses; vacuum — vacua, vacuums; virtuoso — virtuosi, virtuosos.

3. Changes in morphological structure imply that divisible words become indivisible, because certain morphemes are absent from English,  such as Italian suffixes. -etto, -otta, -ello  which became the part of the root (ballot, stiletto, umbrella).

4. Lexical assimilation implies the change of meaning.

For example, the meaning of the word may become more general, e.g. The Italian word ‘umbrella’ used to denote only ‘sunshade,’ while the English word ‘umbrella’ now may mean any kind of protection.

Degrees of assimilation

  • Some words are easily recognizable as loan words, e.g. Zeitgeist, ballet
  • Most words are thoroughly assimilated: pupil, master, etc.
  • Some words are partially assimilated: phenomenon—(pl.) phenomena


Translation loans(calque) are words taken into the vocabulary of another language by way of literal morpheme-for-morpheme or word-for-word translation (e.g. masterpiece (from Germ. Meisterstück), wonder child (from Germ. Wunderkind), first dancer (from Ital. prima-ballerina), collective farm (from R. колхоз), five-year plan (from R. пятилетка).


When analyzing borrowed words one should distinguish between two terms — source of borrowing and origin of borrowing. The first term is applied to the language from which the word was immediately borrowed and the second—to the language to which the word may be ultimately traced.


Etymological doublets are words originating from the same etymological source, but differing in phonemic shape and in meaning. They may enter the vocabulary by different routes. (e.g. to capture (Lat.) — to catch (Norm. Fr.) — to chase (Par. Fr.); shirt—skirt)

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Additional reading: 15 Pairs of Different Words That Surprisingly Come From the Exact Same Source


Check your understanding

What do we call a new word or a phraseological unit or a meaning of an existing words which is felt by speakers as new and not included in most dictionaries?

Show answer »

A neologism

Which ways of neologism formation do you remember?

Show answer »

E.g. word building, change of meaning, borrowing, new set phrases

 In which way was the neologism politiclone (=A political pundit or commentator who is unable to think for her/himself) formed?

Show answer »

Word formation (blending)

In which way was the neologism desk rage (=extreme or violent anger shown by someone in an office, especially when this is caused by worry or a difficult situation) formed?

Show answer »

New set phrase

What do we call an outdated word or expression?

Show answer »

An archaism

Which language family does English belong to?

Show answer »

Indo-European family

Which language group does English belong to?

Show answer »


Which languages has English mainly borrowed from?

Show answer »

French and Latin

What do we call words taken into the vocabulary of another language by way of morpheme-by-morpheme translation?

Show answer »

Translation loans (calque)

What is the difference between the source of borrowing of a borrowed word and the source of origin of a borrowed word?

Show answer »

Source of borrowing = the language from which the word was taken; origin of borrowing=the language where the word first appeared.

What do we call words originating from the same etymological source, but differing in phonemic shape and in meaning?

Show answer »

Etymological doublets

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Further reading

Stylistic characteristics of English vocabulary

  • Антрушина Г. Б. и др. Лексикология английского языка. М., 1999 and other editions — CHAPTERS 1, 2 Which Word Should We Choose, Formal or Informal?
  • Арнольд И.В. Лексикология английского языка. М., 1973; Флинта, Наука, 2012 and other editions — Chapter 11. Lexical Systems; Chapter 12. The Opposition of Stylistically Marked and Stylistically Neutral Words
  • D.Crystal. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 1995 and other editions — Part II English Vocabulary. 12 Lexical dimensions


Etymology of English words

  • Антрушина Г. Б. и др. Лексикология английского языка. М., 1999 and other editions — CHAPTERS 3, 4 The Etymology of English Words.
  • Арнольд И.В. Лексикология английского языка. М., 1973; Флинта, Наука, 2012 and other editions — Chapter 11. Lexical Systems; 11.1 The English Vocabulary as an Adaptive System. Neologisms
  • D.Crystal. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 1995 and other editions — Part II English Vocabulary. 9 The sources of lexicon


Wordspy — database of neologisms in English

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Exercise 1

Look at these three text extracts and decide which register types you would classify them in (formal/informal). Underline key stylistically marked words which help you decide the register. Guess what kind of text these extracts are taken from. Find examples of stylistically colored words: terms, colloquial/slang words, bookish/poetic words, officialese/literary words etc.


Dear Mr Brown,Because Mr. Jones is out of the office for the next two weeks I am acknowledging receipt of your letter dated May 20, l983. It will be brought to his attention immediately upon his return. If I may be of any assistance during Mr. Jones’ absence, please do not hesitate to call.


Jim’s dad enters with Nadia.  She’s in sweats and a leotard, carrying a duffel bag over her shoulder.  Jim’s  dad is delighted, fidgety, almost giddy.JIM’S DAD: Son.  This lady’s here for you.JIM:  I know.  Hey Nadia.NADIA:  Hello James.  Ready to study?JIM’S DAD: Oh, you bet he is.  Jim’s quite the bookworm.JIM: Dad…

JIM’S DAD: Oh, no, not too much of a bookworm.  He’s a good little kid.  Er, guy. Man.

JIM:  Dad!!

JIM’S DAD:  Okay, okay.  I’ll let you hit those books.


Bacteria have a thick, rigid cell wall, which maintains the integrity of the cell, and determines its characteristic shape. Since the cytoplasm of bacteria contains high concentrations of dissolved substances, they generally live in a hypotonic environment (i.e. one that is more dilute than their own cytoplasm). There is therefore a natural tendency for water to flow into the cell, and without the cell wall the cell would fill and burst (you can demonstrate this by using enzymes to strip off the cell wall, leaving the naked protoplast).


Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.`’Tis some visitor,’ I muttered, `tapping at my chamber door -Only this, and nothing more.’

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,

And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.

Eagerly I wished the morrow; — vainly I had sought to borrow

From my books surcease of sorrow — sorrow for the lost Lenore —

For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels named Lenore —

Nameless here for evermore.

Exercise 2.     Put the words on the left into the correct columns in the table.

Formal Informal

purchase    handy

loo              resume

thus            terrific

quid            commence

apprehend  reckon


Now find a formal/ informal/neutral synonym for each of the words from this list.

therefore  toilet    convenient  catch/stop  start    man    start again

pound   think    fantastic   buy

e.g. purchase—buy

Exercise 3. Rewrite these sentences in more informal English.

  1. When are you going to collect your bicycle?
  2. Most of these children are very clever.
  3. I think it’ll commence quite soon.
  4. Would you like to go out for a meal?
  5. My flat is five minutes from where I work, thus it is very convenient.
  6. What’s the matter?
  7. The man in the market wanted twenty pounds for this ring.
  8. Where did you purchase that book?
  9. They’ll never apprehend him.
  10. I’m just going to the toilet.

Exercise 4. Now rewrite this letter in more suitable formal English.

Dear Mr CollinsWe’re really sorry to say that we can’t lend you the sum of five hundred quid that you need, but it may be possible to give you a loan for some of the money.If you are still interested, do you fancy getting in touch with our main office to fix up an appointment with the assistantmanager. He will be happy to talk to you about it.Yours sincerely

Source: English Vocabulary in Use (pre-intermediate & intermediate)

Exercise 5.

Replace the slang words which are in bold in the sentences below with more formal equivalents. If you don’t find them in a dictionary, it should be possible to guess what it is. Notice that some of the words have a slang meaning which is different from their everyday meaning.

  1. The newsreader on TV last night seemed to be pissed as he was reading the news.
  2. He’s quite a nice bloke really.
  3. Have you got wheels or shall we call a taxi?
  4. I’m dying for a cuppa. I haven’t had one since breakfast.
  5. I was absolutely gobsmacked when she told me she was leaving.


Exercise 6.

If you meet a new word it is often possible to work out its meaning from its context. Practice by explaining what the words in bold in the following sentences may mean.

  1. I very much prefer restaurants where there is no microwavery.
  2. They’re building a new cineplex on the edge of the town so we should be able to choose from a variety of films on Saturday nights.
  3. Upskiing, which uses small parachutes, is a rapidly developing sport in the USA.
  4. World AIDS Day was inspired by the health globocrats of the World Health Organization.
  5. He is writing a thesis on humorology.

Exercise 7.

Now guess the meaning of the following neologisms (ca. 2006) studying their natural context and explain in which way they were formed.



Example Citation:

«American officials said today that they doubted Argentina would decide to ‘dollarize’ its economy unless it came under dire pressure from an economic meltdown in Brazil.»

—»Resistance to Argentine ‘Dollar’,» The New York Times


Example Citation:

The cult of cosplay sprang to life more than 15 years ago, when Japanese anime otaku (fans) began dressing up as their favourite cartoon characters at annual anime meets, where fans attended talks, meet-the-artist sessions and caught up with each other.

Soon, cosplay masquerades were appearing in countries like the US, Canada, Hongkong and Taiwan. In 1990, Project A-kon in Dallas, Texas, was one of the first US anime conventions to feature a cosplay contest.

—Clara Chow, «Spider can eat my shorts,» The New Straits Times, March 8, 2002


Example Citation:

«Ah, vacation! Balmy breezes, ice-cold margaritas, compliant snipers. Snipers? Yep. The newest kick for jaded tourists who have hit all the world’s hot spots is to hit the world’s really hot spots. The idea behind what some are calling terror travel or extreme tourism is basically to take the U.S. State Department’s travel advisory warning list and make an itinerary out of it.»

—Justin Doebele, «Club Dead,» Forbes, December 15, 1997



Exercise 1.

A) Formal register (an official letter); examples of officialese/literary words: am acknowledging; receipt; assistance etc.

B) Informal register (an extract from a movie script (American Pie)); examples of colloquial/slang words: bet; hit books; guy; kid

C) Formal register (an extract from a book on microbiology); examples of learned words/terms: integrity; cytoplasm; dissolved substances etc.

D) Formal register (an extract from a famous poem Raven by E.A. Poe); examples of literary/poetic/archaic words: dreary; ‘Tis; wrought; morrow; surcease

Exercise 2.

Formal Informal
purchase handy
resume loo
thus terrific
commence quid
apprehend reckon

purchase-buy; handy-convenient; loo-toilet; resume-start again; thus-therefore; terrific/fantastic; quid-pound; commence-start; apprehend-catch; reckon-think; guy-man

Exercise 3.

  1. When are you going to pick up your bike?
  2. Most of the kids are very bright.
  3. I reckon it’ll start pretty soon.
  4. Do you fancy going out for a meal?
  5. My flat is five minutes from where I work, so it’s very handy.
  6. What’s up?
  7. The guy in the market wanted 20 quid for this ring.
  8. Where did you buy/get that book?
  9. They’ll never catch him.
  10. I’m just going to the loo.

Exercise 4.

We regret to inform you that we are unable to lend you the sum of £500 that you require, but it may be possible to grant you a loan for part of the sum.

If you are still interested, would you like to contact our main office to arrange an appointment with the assistant manager. He will be happy to discuss the matter further.

Exercise 5.

  1. drunk
  2. man
  3. car
  4. cup of
  5. amazed


Exercise 6.

  1. cooking by microwave oven
  2. a building which houses a number of different cinemas
  3. skiing uphill
  4. high-ranking, powerful members of international organizations
  5. the study of humor

Exercise 7.

dollarize (verb; affixation)

For a country to abandon its national currency in favour of the U.S. dollar.

cosplay (noun; blending of costume and play)

A play or skit in which fans dress up as their favorite Japanese cartoon characters.

extreme tourism (noun; compound word)

Tourism that involves travelling to dangerous places or participating in dangerous events.

—extreme tourist