Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Vocabulary

My, What Big Words You Use
by Lisa Lickel

When I first started on the path to publication, one of my lessons was about keeping a notebook of new and unusual words, to constantly update my vocabulary and find exactly the right word for each character, setting, scene, dialogue to convey the tone of my piece. Some of the best literary minds practiced this technique, searching through their journals for the perfect nuance. I’ve been in love with words ever since I first learned in a spelling bee that “ence” endings are Greek and “ance” are Latin origin. When I kept failing spelling tests in junior high, I realized eventually, because I read so many British novels. As a medical transcriptionist in a county office, I kept a wipe board of “word of the day” at my desk.

Read any book from the 1940s, 50s or 60s. We’ve lost so much of our vocabulary.

I’m one of those readers who delights in discovering a new or unusual word. I grew up taking the Reader’s Digest vocabulary challenge on a monthly basis, and I still have dictionaries planted all over my house. I generally don’t mind stopping to write something down or look something up while I’m reading, or at least after the exciting part slows down. A unique turn of phrase makes me quiver in ecstasy and jealousy that I didn’t come up with it first.

I used my vocabulary notebook in my first attempt at a literary novel. I got out my big(ger) guns and poked in a few multi-syllabic words here and there, like
·         liminal
·         cerulean
·         commodious

After all, one of my main characters was a lawyer. My crit partner righteously called me on whether or not a guy would seriously think in terms of “cerulean,” as in, did my author voice intrude? Maybe it did, but the word felt right and I kept it. The editor for my project slashed a few of my voluptuous babes, but left others, then the publisher knocked the book into the romance category. I got dinged by a few sassafras-drinking critics in the reviews for using too big words that made the reader stumble. I say, “look ’em up!”

Using the perfect word can evoke multiple sensations. Words like
·         lilac
·         crepuscular
·         effervescent

What feelings, scents, sounds, emotions, do those kinds of words create for your readers?

Authors read.
It’s a requirement of the job.

While on vacation with long driving spells, I read through seven books. In one of them, and probably the second-to-last place I thought I’d find anything like this, were some of the best, coolest, most funky words I remember being used in pop commercial fiction of late.

How did the first-time author get those past the editor? Hoo-rah! I have to slap him a high-five at least. The book was Through the Fire by debut author Shawn Grady. And I do intend to go hence and find his sequel. I wrote down a few words, two of which I had a vague idea that I’d remembered at least hearing about before.

Some of those words are:
·         Piceous – glossy brownish black in color
·         Coruscating – glitter, be brilliant

·         Cruor – coagulated blood

I Challenge: Find a couple of those Big Words in the next book you read. Try to fit some awesome words in the next book you write.
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3 comments:

  1. Enjoyed the article. I love words, too. One of my favorite books is "Big Book of Words You Should Know." Among my personal favorites: lachrymose and iconoclastic.

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  2. I agree, Lisa. Let the reader use a dictionary, or gather the meaning of an appropriate word by its context.

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