One thing that seems to trouble Chinese learners of English more than others is that "new words are hard to remember".
Even advanced learners, such as readers of this column (wink, wink), say so.
While that may be true, all is not doom and gloom. At least sometimes a new word is easy to remember - and in fact quite hard to forget if you learn their story.
Take the word "serendipity" for example. It means the discovery of something good by accident. Or, in the words of Julius H. Comroe, a biomedical researcher, "serendipity is looking for a needle in a haystack and finding the Farmer's Daughter".
A few years ago, there was a BBC program titled Serendipity of Science addressing a series of such happy incidents in scientific studies. A webpage describing the program (http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/science/serendipity.shtml) says, in part:
"The most well-known example of medical serendipity has to be Fleming's discovery of Penicillin, when a mould landed on his culture plate and killed off his bacteria…
"And one of the most famous new drugs of the last decade - Viagra - owes its existence to serendipity. It started its life as a potential treatment for angina, and was being tested in clinical trials. As an angina treatment, it was pretty useless, but then the researchers began to get reports of some unexpected side effects..."
According to Oxford English Dictionary, serendipity was "coined by Horace Walpole, who says (Let. to Mann, 28 Jan. 1754) that he had formed it upon the title of the fairy-tale 'The Three Princes of Serendip', the heroes of which 'were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of'."
"The Three Princes of Serendip" - Serendip being an old name for Sri Lanka - was an ancient Persian tale. From online, here's a retelling of the story by Robert Boyle (author of Knox's Words: A Study of the Words of Sri Lankan Origin or Association First Used in the English Language by Robert Knox and Recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary), in part:
Misfortune befalls the princes when a camel driver stops them on the road and asks them if they have seen one of his camels. Although they have not, they have noticed signs that suggest a camel has passed along the road. Ever ready to dazzle with their wit and sagacity, the princes mystify the camel driver by asking him if the lost camel is blind in one eye, missing a tooth and lame. The camel driver, impressed by the accuracy of the description, immediately hurries off in pursuit of the animal.
After a fruitless search, and feeling deceived, he returns to the princes, who reassure him by supplying further information. The camel, they say, carried a load of butter on one side and honey on the other, and was ridden by a pregnant woman. Concluding that the princes have stolen the camel, the driver has them imprisoned. It is only after the driver's neighbor finds the camel that they are released.
The princes are brought before Emperor Beramo, who asks them how they could give such an accurate description of a camel they had never seen. It is clear from the princes' reply that they had brilliantly interpreted the scant evidence observed along the road.
As the grass had been eaten on one side of the road where it was less verdant, the princes deduced that the camel was blind to the other side. Because there were lumps of chewed grass on the road the size of a camel's tooth, presumably they had fallen through the gap left by a missing tooth. The tracks showed the prints of only three feet, the fourth being dragged, indicating that the animal was lame. That butter was carried on one side of the camel and honey on the other was clear because ants had been attracted to melted butter on one side of the road and flies to spilled honey on the other.
After learning the roots and history of it, I am sure you will easily remember the word serendipity. While this example may not cure you of the dread for new words, at least it's something that you can take heart from.
Summing up: Are new words hard to remember?
It ain't necessarily so.