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Extending Your Vocabulary

March 30, 2009

Magnetic Poetry by Surreal Muse

Words are the building blocks of the writer’s craft.  Yet building vocabulary is something many writers fail to engage with.

My partner is an avid reader and forever digging out the dictionary to check the meaning of a strange and wonderful word he has come across in his literary adventures. Checking the definition of words  is something that I know I should do, especially as a writer, but I am lazy.  It would mean wandering away from my book and digging through the dictionary. I like to keep the momentum in my reading.

In the past two weeks, I’ve been reading Nabokov’s Lolita.  It’s been a literary assault.  Imagine Nabokov sitting on a high wall, expertly throwing and hitting me with all manner of incredible, some barely prounounceable, words.  At first I tried to dodge or skip around the words, but the sheer number meant instead of fancy footwork I was stumbling like a half drunk idiot through the text.

Enscounced in a comfy chair at Borders Saturday afternoon, I got out my fountain pen and some paper to keep note of all the words that I came across with meanings unknown.  In two hours I amassed a list of thirty words.

In third grade we had a long mauve book full of words to learn.  While to a seven year old it was ‘all about spelling’ I realise now it was also about building up the number of words in our vobabularly.  Each week we would get a list of ten words to learn.  Not only did we have to learn the correct spelling of the words but the context in which to put them, by writing each of the ten words into its own sentence.  Looking back now, it was a task I applied myself to with relish. Hardly suprising in retrospect.

While incorporating words in the sentences  proved to the teacher you understood the meaning of the words, it also imprinted the very same words into our young and voraciously growing intellects – that whole use it for lose it.

It made me realise that as writers we do ourselves a great disservice by not actively working to extend our vocabularies. Unlike at school, there is no one holding our hands or pushing us.  We need to take responsibility for our vocabularies.

While I recognise that words come in and out of fashion, words get overused and their meanings defiled, new words come into the vernacular and as Paul’s post Save the Language showed last year, some are officially retired. It is possible that many of the words I did not know may be an artefact of time.  Nabokov was writing in the early 50’s.

Should we not push out from our own familiar turf and seek adventures on more exotic shores?

There is the option of reading the dictionary – something that I’m not terribly enthused about, if you want to endow yourself with more lego blocks of words to build more fantastical creations. But thankfully there are other ways.

  • You can  read beyond your comfort zone. While intrigued to read Lolita after seeing the 1993 remake and the firestorm of controversary that swirled around it, I specifically chose it to test myself both as a reader and writer.  And the language has indeed challenged me. My tip is to keep a note pad handy as your read, and jot down any words you don’t immediately recognise, to look up later on.
  • You can subscribe to’s Word of the Day. There are some beauties.  While my partner is not a wordsmith (though I have sneaky suspicions he’d made a brilliant writer) he is a connoisseur of words. For the last four years he has received’s daily email and often shared them with me.  I will be signing up this week and crossing this off my to do list – finally! As an aside – Sunday’s word of the day was osculation – the act of kissing.

And of course then it’s time to use the words that we find.  Without actively engaging with the words, like names, we’re bound to have it consigned to some obscure section of our swiss cheese brains unable to call them back when needed! Fiction Friday is a great space to road test new words.

Extending our vocabulary should be considered an essential part of writing – call it professional development. It is how language develops, grows and flourishes.

This week, I propose a task straight out of Miss Colvin’s third grade class.  Below is the list of thirty words from my two hours of Lolita on the weekend.  I invite you to:

  1. Choose a word from the list and look it up
  2. Share  the definition and anything interesting you found out about the word
  3. Create a sentence to encapsulate the meaning and texture of the word?

Adumbrated                 Concupiscence          Coeval

Indolent                         Natatoriums                Pavonine

Ignoble                           Matitudinal                  Leporine

Ante-bellum                 Parsimonious              Manatee

Spurious                        Delectation                   Crepitated

Priapically                    Lassitude                       Prostraton

Simulacrum                  Privation                       Vitiating

Paradisal                        Philters                          Bi-iliac

Sublimating                  Rapacious                     Perspicacious

Pedagogic                     Caloricity                       Febriculosa

Jodi Cleghorn remembers her second boyfriend telling her to stick to using two syllable words and “speak English” – he couldn’t understand her. Not surprisingly their relationship didn’t go far and she’s never missed the irony of the three syllable word “syllable”! Jodi’s musings can be found at Writing With Passionate Abandon.
  1. March 30, 2009 1:56 am

    Adumbrated – from adumbrate (always used in conjunction with an object)
    Origin 1575-85. Derived from the Latin adumbrātus (shaded)

    * to produce a faint image or resemblance of; to outline or sketch.
    * to foreshadow; prefigure.
    * to darken or conceal partially; overshadow

    … Every time he closed his eyes, her adumbrated silhouette burnt with inedible precision into his retina, bought back the pain he was trying to run from. Just a caricature from his past he tried to tell himself, but his ministrations fell on deaf ears.

  2. March 30, 2009 7:05 am

    Thanks for this Jodi – have just subscribed myself – and as you said – these words can act as the springboard for a story – or something even bigger – look what Inaglio and Conspinky did…..

  3. March 30, 2009 7:21 am

    Jodi — the last comment about your second boyfriend telling you to “speak English” reminded me of my second girlfriend… who broke up with me because she was tired of having to “read the dictionary” every night. I’ll spare the details, but looking back at it now some 23 years later it was certainly an interesting experience to try to rewind through our conversations to see where I had “stopped speaking English” with her.

    Many years later, I spoke to her about it and as it turns out, I never had stopped speaking English, nor had I used complex vocabulary. She simply had a perception that I was so much ‘smarter’ because I was a writer and because of my standardized test scores and class rank… so she felt that I must be using words she didn’t understand.

    While I do try to learn more vocabulary and keep growing as a writer and a reader (I subscribe to the Word of the Day on, too), the place where I am in my writing these days is a place where I strive to keep it “accessible” in terms of the words that are used in a given piece. Often I find it distracting when a “fancy word” is used in a piece, especially if it stands out as being far more complex vocabulary than the rest of the work. That type of thing will often turn me off to the work completely and make me not return to it. I suppose it is a fine line that we authors must walk with regards to pushing the limits of vocabulary.

    So, here’s my word:

    Delectation: [Middle English delectacioun, from Old French, from Latin dēlectātiō, dēlectātiōn-, from dēlectus, past participle of dēlectāre, to please.]
    1. Delight
    2. Enjoyment;pleasure

    The day after their field trip to the circus, the teacher asked the school children to discuss the delectation they felt while watching the animals and people performing such amazing stunts and feats of strength, but as the children talked about the day it was not clear whether they got more of a thrill from seeing the lions, the acrobats and the trapeze artists or from the fact that they got to eat a lot of cotton candy and popcorn all day.

  4. March 31, 2009 11:20 am

    I too found this interesting. I get a word of the day from the Oxford English Dictionary via igoolge. And then yesterday I came across this in ‘Teach Yourself Creative Writing’: Set yourself the task of writing an eight line verse which makes valid use of the word-of-the-day. So here’s my humble offering. The word is niggle.

    Here we go again.
    Two minutes peace was all I was granted.
    You’d think intelligence rendered patient. You’d be wrong.
    What was it this time?
    I’d misunderstood what for everyone is as clear as daylight;
    Everyone with the obvious exception of myself.
    I looked up and saw that twitch
    And knew I was in for another niggle.

  5. April 1, 2009 4:50 am

    I tried putting this in yesterday but for some reason it’s not come up, so I’ll try again. I found this piece interesting, and also Rob’s comment. Yes, we do need to be constantly improving our vocabulary but we mustn’t just bombard the reader with our knowledge. The same day I read this, I also found the following exercise in “Teach Yourself Creative Writing.” Set yourself the task of writing an eight line verse which makes valid use of the word-of-the-day. My word was “niggle” and here’s what I came up with.

    Here we go again.
    Two minutes peace was all I was granted.
    You’d think intelligence rendered patient. You’d be wrong.
    What was it this time?
    I’d misunderstood what for everyone is as clear as daylight;
    Everyone with the obvious exception of myself.
    I looked up and saw that twitch
    And knew I was in for another niggle.

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