Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Fun With Words

What I'm reading: The Hard Way, by Lee Child
Rita entry: 2 of 9

First, thanks to Eilis for giving us a nudge to keep focusing on our goals. And welcome to my new blog followers.

I subscribe to's Word of the Day. Sometimes they're everyday words. Sometimes they're words I know but don't use often, and they'll trigger a "Good word, I should remember to use it once in a while." Sometimes I haven't heard of them, but I can figure them out (those years of Latin). Sometimes they're totally new. Those are the most fun, although it's not likely they'll show up in one of my books.

Why? Because of that sticky little thing called "POV." Everything needs to fit. Cowboys don't talk like chefs, who don't talk like politicians, who don't talk like gang bangers. We've all got a standard vocabulary we use in our work, and probably another one we use with close friends, and another with family. The words we choose will relate to our education and experience.And probably yet another one we use when we read--we know and understand words on the page, but they're not part of our "speaking" vocabulary.

As writers, If we're doing our job, we're not on the page at all. Not in dialog, not in narrative, and not in description. In one of my early stories, I had a teen-aged boy trapped in a basement searching for a means of egress. Even though I figure that word's probably understandable to most reader, it's not something a teen-aged boy is likely to think of, especially if he's scared. That was the author, not the character talking.

Elmore Leonard summed it up much better than I can.

Keep Reading...

"If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can't allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It's my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.)

If I write in scenes and always from the point of view of a particular character -- the one whose view best brings the scene to life -- I'm able to concentrate on the voices of the characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what they see and what's going on, and I'm nowhere in sight." (Elmore Leonard)

When I write, my characters tend to be everyday, ordinary people. I write commercial fiction for everyday, ordinary readers. I definitely don't want my readers to have to read with a dictionary beside them.

So, even though I've had some really cool words come through, I doubt you'll see them in anything I've written (except here.) How many of these do you recognize? Can you define? Can you use in a sentence? Would you ever use in conversation?

and one of my favorites, tmesis. Although I've never used the word, I've used its definition.

So ... without resorting to a dictionary, are these part of your vocabulary? I was going to make it a game, matching words with their definitions. Maybe I'll give the definitions tomorrow. Maybe I'll be wicked and won't match them up with the words.


Sling Words aka Joan Reeves said...

Great Elmore Leonard advice. I like something else he said: "I leave out the parts people skip over."

That's about the most succinct and spot-on advice I ever read about writing.

Elaine Cantrell said...

Sorry, but I'd fail your matching test. I've never used those words in any of my writing. One time I had a professor whose every other word was something we couldn't spell and didn't know it meant. Everyone did well in the class, though. He had to curve the grades because we all scored so low.

Terry Odell said...

Joan, yes, I have the full Elmore Leonard article saved in my files. Great gems, especially when editing.

Elaine -- I'll bet you'd get one or two just because of the root words, but yeah, I don't like tests. Besides, on a blog post, it's too easy to use the dictionary to "cheat".

For me, it was the chemistry professors who had to curve the exams. He promised an A to anyone who scored a 70% average. Seems the fault was more in his teaching than the subject matter.

Anita Birt said...

I long to use the word, louche, in a story. English writers drop it in here and there but North Americans avoid it. It sounds like it is, "not quite the thing, dear boy." Or "disreputable."
But I've seen it used to mean a rather lazy character.

Thanks for that awful list of words, I was baffled.

Katie Reus said...

I've never used any of those words in writing and I can't imagine I've ever used one of them in conversation :)

Jess said...

Not having studied Latin, I am sure glad those words didn't show up on the SATs!

Ray said...

I am a subscriber to Word of the Day, not so much for the odd words, but for the etymology. I love the OED because there is a complete history of the words. Some of the words used during the time of Shakespeare have the exact opposite meaning today.

I also have open in a tab on my browser at all times. I just looked up one of the medical terms used in an article about the disease discussed in a previous blog. There were listings in twenty some general dictionaries and seven medical dictionaries. Your word tmesis appears in 25 dictionaries. Sometimes my email program does an unintentional tmesis.


Terry Odell said...

Ray, one of my editors is Australian, and we've had some 'interesting' discussions about word usage. She uses one look all the time.
Although technically, we speak the same language in he US as they do in Australia, it's another example of two countries divided by a common language. I remember she objected to my use of the phrase "all of a sudden" because one couldn't have "half of a sudden."

Ray said...

"All of a sudden" and "half of a sudden" are good for a discussion on idioms. When I was taking German in high school each chapter in the textbook had a sections labeled IDIOMS. One of the examples was "Zum Kuckuck noch einmal" or in English "To the cuckoo once again." In other words he/she is crazy or is acting crazy. In the movie Casablanca an elderly couple is practicing English. One says to the other "What watch." A pocket watch is pulled out and the answer is "(N) watch." Every time I see that movie I think about German class.


Anonymous said...

Some of these words are a Scrabble player's dream.