Saturday, December 6, 2008

Word Up

I used the words "miasma of evil' the other day to describe the rather unsubtle aroma and ambience that was to be found in one of the rooms of my house. My husband was impressed and challenged me to use it in one of my books, where I promptly told him I already had.

I had great English teachers who made us memorize all sorts of fancy words that one rarely has a chance to use, and after all these years, they seem to be bestirring in my brain. My current heroine is a writer, and here is her situation:

She felt an enormous pit of emptiness, which she would only dig deeper when Edward came tonight. And he must come. If he didn’t---

Well, she’d simply go on. Alone, alone, alone.

My, but she was being maudlin. Positively lachrymose. Lugubrious. Sepulchral. She spent much of her time with a dictionary handy trying to broaden her vocabulary for her novels. One had a duty to educate one’s readers after all.

Most of us don't read with a dictionary handy, though. What do you do when you come across an unfamiliar (obscure, recondite) word or phrase? Do you skip it, look it up or try to figure it out on your own? What's your favorite fancy/weird word?
I like the word "indolence." It makes my laziness seem classy. ~Bern Williams


Elyssa Papa said...

If I don't know it, I look it up. It'll nag me otherwise. I think in a romance novel that came out this summer, a word was used and I looked it up because I had no idea what it meant, even after trying to figure it out. (It was used as a dialogue tag). And when I finally did learn what it meant, I was a bit pissed off because I was just like well, WTF didn't the author just use the more common word to begin with. It felt too much showing off to me and not because it was in the author's vocabulary.

See, with your snippet, it feels natural to me. (And I'm not saying this simply because you're my CP and friend). Trust me, I'd tell you if you were getting high and mighty, which is probably why I have so few friends. LOL. The language feels right that this would be how the character spoke and thought. I think that's the key. If you're character is Forrest Gump, I'd doubt he or she would use polysyllabic words for something.

One of my favorites is cacophany. I loved using that in an English paper about analyzing some poem or something.

I'm so embarrassed to admit this but this brings a situation back to mind. I was a freshman or sophomore (can't remember) and in my American Lit II course---I have to say that I'm fairly intelligent and know my stuff. The professors wants us to look at the page of THE SUN ALSO RISES before Chapter One where Ernest puts up two quotes. And she's asks why did he use this juxtaposition.

I had no idea WTF a juxtaposition even was, and everyone else in the class is putting up answers. And all I'm thinking is please don't call on me because I'm sitting dead center in the row. Icertainly wasn't going to raise my hand and look like the naive, unknowledgable idiot. So, I did the whole avoiding looking at the professor because then she won't call on you. It worked---luckily. As soon as I got back to my door room, I looked up the word and went oh, so that's what it means. But I just remembered feeling so embarrassed and so unknowledgable that I wanted to hide under the covers and never get out. I absolutely hate feeling like a moron or dumb.

Jeez, Maggie, I should just call you Oprah or Barbara Walters. You ask one simple question, and you get this whole backstory you didn't ask for. I'll send you a check in the morning.

rubyslippers said...

Words, words, words, I LOVE words! Once upon a time I could go to the database in my brain and pull up just the right word for any situation. Today, well, let's just say that someone has been mucking about in there moving my files. Can't find a d*** thing!

I don't run across many words that I don't know or can't figure out from the context. (Perhaps I should be reading more challenging books!) But if I find a particularly intriguing one I have to look it up. Not only do I have a modern dictionary, I have an 1890 one as well for when I am perusing historical documents.

Favorite words? Too many to count, but 'amok' is a favorite along with 'plethora' and 'penurious'. (I love cacophony, too!)


Maggie Robinson said...

Ely, love you! And it's so true, certain things tend to stick with us. You can shove 'em in the closet all you want, but they continue to tumble out, LOL. I fully expect to read this in one of your books!

I remember during FanLit I once made the comment (which I regret, because it hurt the writer) about using words that were too fancy, because they just seemed to jump out like she was trying too hard. But I admit I like to think I'm reading something stimulating, so I don't mind learning something new.

I confess I frequently write with minimized. I won't tell you how many times I've looked up 'throb.' *g*

Maggie Robinson said...

Oh, Ruby, great words. I envy you your dictionary. I'm too cheap to invest in the one that tells you origins/time frame of words ( and too stupid to remember its name at the moment)but I still try to make sure that whatever I use was appropriate for the time. I've had to yank some slang a time or two. The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (I think that's the title) is great fun and it's free online.

Janga said...

I too am a word lover. One of the things I am thankful for is that through my university library I have access to the OED. I get the OED Word of the Day delivered to my home page, and I can never decide if the greatest delight is seeing a totally unfamiliar word or discovering a new meaning for a word I thought I knew. I also love reading the ways other writers from different periods have used the words.

I have bookmarked a wonderful site that lists hundreds of "favorite words:

Among my top favorites are "chortle," "rapport," and "desiderium." I've used all but the last in something I've written. I'm confident that sometime I will want to write of my longing for things I once possessed that I no longer have. When I do, then I'll be able to use "desiderium." Ely, I like "juxtaposition," but I like "euphony" better than "cacaphony." :)

J.K. Coi said...

I like the word "linoleum". Listen to the way it rolls off the tongue. Cool eh?

Maggie Robinson said...

JK, people say the same thing about 'cellar door.'

Janga, the OED! That's what I was thinking---trust you to know it! Going right to 'my favorite word'...sounds like a great way to procrastinate.

rubyslippers said...

Oh, I forgot another favorite word -- onomatopoeia -- as much fun to say as it is to write!

Here's a free online source I use when I want to know word origins -- and it also has the earliest known date of printing.

Tiffany Chalmers said...

If I don't know it, I look it up.

And you are just brilliant, Maggie. I don't know some of those words, but can definitely guess with the context you've put them in.

And I always use a thesaurus (minimized on screen) when writing.

Ruby, etymonline is a very useful sight. I also use cassell's dictionary of slang... gives you the date of a word! It's the best dictionary investment I ever made.

And it's too early to think of a word I'm fond of that other's aren't familiar with. It's quite possible I don't use fancy words in my writing [shrugs] just not smart enough I guess *g*

Anonymous said...

Writers love fancy/wierd words like car nuts love cool cars. I have to force myself to put the dictionary away after I've looked up a word, or I'll get lost for several minutes just reading.

One of the earliest words I remember looking up was vituperative (meaning harsh, acrimonious). A heroine once had to bite back the "vituperative words that sprang to her lips" when the hero was baiting her. "Vituperative" sounded 10X madder than simply "angry".

Also, being parsimonious in my spending habits sounds so much better than being cheap. :)

Fun blog, Maggie!

irisheyes said...

I'm looking up words a lot. Especially since discovering historical romances. I'm like Ely in that I do not like to feel or sound ignorant. It's become increasingly clear lately that my vocabulary could use a boost. It's harder than you would think, though, to increase your vocabulary. Especially when normal day to day words (cabinet, shelf, comforter, keyring - just to name a few I've gone blank on in the past week! LOL) seem to escape me more and more. I know the word is there I just can't seem to pull it front and center. UGH!!

Anyway, thanks for all the sites. I'm going to bookmark them and hopefully become more loquacious, or is verbose the word I'm looking for?! Maybe just plain old gabby will do. :)

irisheyes said...

I forgot to post my favorite word - plethora.

terrio said...

I guess I usually figure out the meaning by context and if not, I just keep going. I find that I recognize and know the meaning of most fancy words, but I don't use them. They aren't really a part of my vocabulary. And I too have been known to consult often while writing.

One of my favorite words is serendipity. Which I might have spelled wrong, but I'm too lazy to look up. LOL!

Stephanie J said...

I might be a little strange but I always keep a pocket dictionary next to me when I read. I've had the dictionary since I was in the 4th grade and checking words while I read is all that I've ever used it for. I'm pretty good at figuring out a word from the context but I have this thing about knowing the exact definition. I find that I do the same thing when I'm on the computer...I used my Mac's dictionary to look up EVERYTHING. And oh the thesaurus, don't even get me started on that!

I love challenging myself on that rice know the one where you quiz yourself on word meaning and earn rice for third world countries?

Maggie Robinson said...

Tiff, you're plenty smart. :)

Anon, I knew somebody who read the dictionary every single day for a few minutes, so you're in good company. I always wind up looking all around the word I'm looking up, although my dictionary is so old and big and heavy it's starting to fall apart, and there are some days I don't have the strength to lift it from where it lives---by my feet, under my desk.

Irish, I hope you get a plethora of presents for Christmas!

Terri, I knew it was time to stop writing last night when I was looking up synonyms for about every third word---my brain was fried.

Steph,I got hooked on the rice site, too. I love word-oriented games. I need all the exercise for my mind I can get!

Kelly Krysten said...

I look up the words I don't know and the pronunciation thereof. There's nothing more embarassing than mispronouncing words that should showcase your vast vocabulary.

Very nice snippet from your book. What a great heroine!

Santa said...

I adore words. I try to figure out their meaning from context and, if that fails, go to I love that site and its sister,

My dh's uncle kept up with the latest editions of the dictionary. He was known to return them to the bookstore (and chastise the owner for carrying inferior materials) if he found being less than up to date. He would have loved all these word related sites on the internet.

I was a brunch the other day and an author mentioned a book on Americanisms through the ages. I think that's neat stuff to use words from a certain time period lends further authenticity to what you're reading. You might say I'm, "All in alt over it."

BernardL said...

I've always been fond of the word obfuscate; because while I see it sparingly in literature, I see it in action all the time in reality. :)

Maggie Robinson said...

Santa, you know I've used that "in alt" phrase, forgetting that normal people do not read Regency romances, LOL.

Bernard,I love obfuscate, because somehow it reminds me of SNAFU---which my father explained to me at a very tender age and said "Situation normal, all FOULED up" instead of the (im)proper Army lingo. :)

Thanks, Kelly! When I majored in speech for awhile, we had to learn the phonetic alphabet, but isn't it neat you can go online and listen to how something is pronounced? Yesterday, an English teacher, the librarian and I had an argument on how to pronounce Daedelus. The English teacher fired up his laptop---turns out all three of us were wrong!

Janga said...

I just read the list of words the OED added in December. Among them are "ew" (and its variant spellings) and "podcasting." The list was a timely reminder that while we are using dictionaries to increase our vocabularies, we are also participating in the use of a living language that continues to change the dictionary.

Laura said...

When I was 12 I tried to read Jane Eyre and had a hard time with it. There were so many words I didn't know that I kept a dictionary with me while I read it and looked up the words I didn't know.

Normally I just ignore words I don't know, unless it's recurring or seems important. Then I'll look it up in an online dictionary. I don't use paper dictionaries too much anymore.