Posts Tagged With: Language

The Right Word: or Eschew that Thesaurus

When I visit elementary classrooms, I frequently see a list, posted on the wall, of synonyms gleaned from a thesaurus for overused words like said. This is an admirable attempt on the part of teachers to add some freshness to student writing–though it can be overdone. (Let’s face it, sometimes said is the right word for the job.)

I’m asked a lot if I use a thesaurus to vary my vocabulary. I don’t. Aside from the fact that it seems like cheating, it also often produces an uninteresting word, or worse, one whose meaning is at best a close cousin to the one you need. As Mark Twain put it, “The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning, and lightning bug.” The thesaurus often gives us lightning bugs when what we need is a paralyzing electric shock.

Instead of a thesaurus, I have taped to my laptop a list of words that I encounter when reading but that aren’t part of my active vocabulary. (As you probably know, our active vocabulary–the words we employ ourselves–is a fraction of our passive vocabulary.)  The hope is that having the words in front of me will encourage those words to slide from passive to active vocabulary. Currently on my list:  Svengali, discomfit, peroration, kewpie doll, bravura, captious, immanent, strangulated, sere, canard, valence, eschew, baleful, languor, coruscate, cynosure, and otiose.

Recently I was reading one of my favorite authors–the comic master P. G. Wodehouse (of Jeeves and Wooster fame)–and I started jotting down the words he used instead of walk. Jeeves the butler never walked into a room: he streamed, shimmered, floated, trickled, flowed, sifted, slid and trickled. Other, less reserved, characters surged round, rocketed, and bounded.

Would Wodehouse have found any of those words in a thesaurus under “walk?” Your Honor, I rest my case.

So, have I convinced you to eschew the thesaurus?

PS I’m curious to know what others have taped to their computers for inspiration?  And teachers: what techniques do you use to broaden your students’ vocabulary?

Categories: Writing/Publishing Tips | Tags: | 2 Comments

“I like words”

Uncle Philbert & Aunt Mattie

“I like words.”

That’s how a would-be screenwriter once started a job application letter. “I like fat buttery words, such as ooze, turpitude, glutinous, toady…. I like spurious, black-is-white words, such as mortician, liquidate, tonsorial, demi-monde.”  Aside from landing the author a job, the wonderfully witty letter (here)  is a testament to the amazing richness of English, a language that combines the best of Anglo-Saxon’s bluntness (ooze), Greek and Latin’s multi-syllabic gravity (mortician), and the Romance languages’ elegance (demi-monde).

I too like words. For years I collected strange words: words I heard old-time Mainers use; words I gleaned from reading the dictionary (yes, I read dictionaries for fun; how else am I going to find a word like fubsy?); archaic phrases no longer in use; or nonsense words my mother’s family invented. My file bulged with weird words.

When I started my chapter book series (No More Nice, No More Nasty, Too Much Flapdoodle), I found the perfect use for them. I had created eccentric characters—Great Aunt Mattie and Great Uncle Philbert—and I wanted them to have distinct ways of speaking.  Mattie was somewhat refined, so I had her use my favorite archaic words, like Pecksniffian or rodomontade.  Philbert was a farmer, more earthy than Mattie,  so it was natural for him to use the old-fashioned Maine terms, like jizzicked.

Lastly I had Mattie and Philbert use some whimsical made-up words. Like Mattie, my mother used to greet her children each morning by asking “How does your corporosity seem to gashiate?” To which the answer was: “Very discombobulate, great congruity, dissimilarity.” I didn’t know what the words meant, it was just what you said in the morning. (Nor did I suspect that ours was the only family to greet each other this way.

   Favorite 5th grade words

Children, too, like words. Many children’s book writers are afraid to use language that is above grade level, but during school visits I’ve found that kids love the challenge of strange new words.  In fact, they liked the obscure words so much, they were doing things like searching dictionaries to find their own weird words (above).

The strange vocabulary did create some problems. I had to do battle with Flapdoodle copyeditors who insisted on changing downstreet into ‘down the street’ and putting a would in front of druther. I’ve also gotten lots of queries from readers about what the made up words mean (not to mention from the German translator having a, well, conniption, over how to translate gashiate). To all of whom I say: you’ll have to discombobulate an answer yourself.

Some favorites from Too Much Flapdoodle:

Flapdoodle: nonsense.

Fub: mess up or mess around.

Weewaw: crooked.

Muckle: grab.

Whiffet: a small, unimportant person.

Hole in the snow: worthless (like a hole created by, well, whatever).

Teakittle up: tidy up.

Gormy: slow-witted, clumsy.

As in: That gormy cuss has been fubbing around with my fence all morning  and it’s still weewaw. He’s a real hole in the snow. As for you, you young whiffet, cut out the flapdoodle, muckle onto that mop, and help me teakittle up.

Categories: Amy's Books & Writing | Tags: | 1 Comment

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