Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Power of Words

I got two separate topics going, thanks to my blog yesterday on “unusual” words and third person POV. Because of some comments yesterday, I’m going to talk more about words today and pick up on the POV thing tomorrow.

C.J. asked: I want to know, do these words just come to you, or do you read the dictionary for fun? Not that that's a bad thing ...

And Becky said:
I agree with your assessment of most of your words: viscous and enervated are not words I would have called unusual. Not particularly common in speech, but common enough in writing, I think. Sisyphean? I haven't looked it up yet and don't remember the context from any Greek lit I studied. But that's OK--told you, I think a few of these stretch readers and that's a good thing, in my opinion.

Sending off my track changes of Violet Dawn to the editor, I realized there were other perhaps unusual words in the manuscript that hadn’t even been discussed, and so I’d forgotten them. I had this sudden recollection of using the word rataplan. I checked. Yup, it’s in there. Her heart drummed like the rataplan of rain on the roof. Obvious through the context, even if a reader doesn’t know the word. But isn’t it a great word? Kind of onomatopoeic . (Sheesh, I always have to look up how to spell that.)

Becky mentioned the word Sisyphean. I used it in the phrase Sisyphean task. It’s derived from Sisyphus, in Greek mythology. Bad ol’ Sisyphus angered the god Hades when he chained up the god of death, thereby keeping people from reaching the underworld. But Hades knew how to get even. He put Sisyphus to the eternal punishment of pushing a heavy stone up a steep hill. Just as it reached the top, and the exhausted guy thought he’d finally done it, the stone would roll back down to the bottom, and he’d be forced to start all over again. Imagine the sweat and tears of this—for eternity.

Sisyphean task, when written into context, should be understandable even if the reader doesn’t know the word. But what the reader is missing out on! That one adjective takes a whole paragraph to explain, and then the meaning becomes wonderfully rich. This is why I love to use words that incorporate rich, multi-layered meaning. But in the end, if the reader doesn’t understand—communication has been hindered, not helped.

Drat. So I’m back to asking myself—is such-and-such an unusual word or not?

C.J. asked about studying words. You know, I don’t study them enough anymore, but in the early 90’s, when I was struggling to learn the craft of fiction, and reading a lot during that learning curve, I purposely went about assimilating new words. I think to build a good vocabulary, you have to be somewhat purposeful about it. When I saw a word I didn’t know in reading, I’d write it down and look it up later. I also would buy those little tear-off-sheet Word-A-Day calendars. They were particularly helpful because they’d include the history and derivative of the word. I started a file of new words, writing them on 3x5 cards. I made a point of memorizing these words.

Funny, today I look in that old file and find words such as these: ablution, cerulean (oops, think I used that in Violet Dawn, too), effete (and this one), febrile, incorporeal, legerdemain, nacreous, pemmican, sartorial, stygian (another great word from mythology), taciturn, truculent, vicissitude. And I think, “Huh, I didn’t know those words?” Because today they’ve become a regular part of my vocabulary. Just goes to show it’s all so relative. What’s uncommon to some of us may be perfectly common to others.

Something I’ve done recently, to take up my purposeful learning of words: subscribed to an e-mail from
A Word A Day. You ought to try this out. You can do it for free. Yesterday’s word: Prufrockian. Didn’t know that one. What a great word to learn!

And, oh, the power of the perfect turn of phrase. A gal told me her 15-year-old daughter loved to learn words. The kid got mad at another girl and called her a “meretricious slattern.” In other words, a slutty-acting slut.

Whew. Now that’s some accusation.


ValMarie said...

Wow--that's an insult I've never heard. I wonder what the other girl's response was. :-)

Thanks for the link to the Word A Day site. I subscribed as well and look forward to expanding my vocabulary. I love finding the right word that exactly describes a situation.

Domino said...

I would love to get my hands on a thesaurus that includes these lesser-used words. I have one smart character that needs to use a big word or two in his dialogue, so I'll be on the look out for smart sounding words that make sense in his sentences.

I loved the rat-a-tat-tat of the rataplan of rain on the roof. I don't care (as a reader) what rataplan means because I love the rhythm and alliteration of the sentence. And in context, the meaning is quite clear. No need to reach for a dictionary.

Rataplan isn't even in my dictionary, but ratiocination is. I might use that for my smart character.

Beth said...

I have a great book in my library that I reread occasionally: Word Power Made Easy by Norman Lewis. It was part of my son's homeschool curriculum a couple of years ago. Fascinating reading, with exercises to practice on. Highly recommended for any working writer.

1 L Loyd said...

I'm catching up with yesterday and I have to say wow. Until I read your posts, I realized how much of my pleasure in reading is from coming across new words. When I was younger I just used context. Now I use the dictionary. It seems that fewer writers use the uncommon words. Too bad. It is a joy for writer and reader. I believe it was William F. Buckley who said that English was beautiful because you could find a word to exactly fit what you wanted to say. Now to check out Word A Day. =)

C.J. Darlington said...

Another word a day subscriber here. The key is making sure I read each entry. Sometimes I'll e-mail back and forth with someone and we'll try to use each day's word in a sentence. That can be fun.

My personal preference is Roget's 21st Century Thesaurus 2nd edition. I picked it up at B&N and find it almost always has what I need. I like that it includes slang along with those bigger words.

Pammer said...

LOL! That is quite a mouthful, but I bet she didn't get in trouble cause nobody understood her. :0) One time a guy friend of mine asked me if I believed in "premarital interdigital intercourse". I almost slapped him. He said I had a dirty mind cause he was talking about holding hands. He loved to play word games and I started to love vocabulary through him. It continues because I love words and I especially like to use one my hubby hasn't heard before, lol.

I'm subscribing to Word a Day and I have one on my home page. Thanks for the tip.

Karen Wevick said...

Thank you so much for the reminder about the Word a Day site. I used to subscribe to it, but not sure why I stopped it. Words are so much fun.
God Bless,

Lynetta said...

Reading this post reminded me of a great book I should crack open again. It's called Word Lover's Dictionary: Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words. The author is Josefa Heifetz (which kinda helps understand why he would go to all the trouble to compile such a list).

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Wow, that's word the Word a Day...I signed up also. I have Merrian-Webster's 11th Collegiate Dict/Thesaur. for my laptop...I found almost all the words you mentioned in there, so I fell thankful. But I'm going to enjoy a new word every day.

Camy Tang said...

ROFL!!! Okay, is it sad I knew what a meretricious slattern was? Thanks for the laugh today.