[Guest Post] Building a Brilliant Vocabulary: Nuanced Nouns, Vivacious Verbs, Ambitious Adjectives, and What to Do With Them

Today’s guest bloggers are LetterMo Community Members Jaynie Royal and Ruth Feiertag. Ruth and Jaynie are quintessential, complementary twin peas in the pod. While I, Jaynie, perpetually seek to refine my developmental nose—and I speak of character and plot, not day-old fish or malodorous swamp—when it comes to punctuation, I am much in need of Rutherian advice. And I, Ruth, look to Jaynie for insight on content, flow, and characterization. I keep trying to get her to impart to me her tact and diplomacy, but until then, I rely on her to remove my foot from my mouth before anyone notices it’s there. Their full bios are below.

4th February, 2017

Dear Readers,

Ruth: Some years ago, the laurel I inherited from my father turned into a tree with leaves to spare; since then, I have stopped using dried bay leaves and now rely on the supply of fresh ones that I have always to hand. The fresh leaves impart a more vibrant, brighter flavour to my culinary concoctions, one that I notice particularly in my marinara sauce. But I miss the more robust quality of the dried leaves and may buy some to use with the just-plucked foliage from my father’s tree.

Obsessed as Jaynie and I are with language, I cannot help but see how like cooking the writing process is, particularly when it comes to word choice and diction. We start with some basic content and then enhance the flavour, the significance by making judicious choices about the herbs and spices we add or the vocabulary we employ. I suppose we could even say that acquiring an extensive vocabulary is as necessary to a writer as is a wide range of pigments to a painter.

Is it my imagination, or does adding laurel leaves bring out a more triumphant note in soup than adding bay? Or does a laurel, like a rose, smell as sweet by any other word? And does it matter whether Shakespeare wrote “by any other word” or “by any other name”? Whether what Hamlet wishes would resolve itself into a dew is “ too, too sullied flesh” or “too, too solid flesh”? I would say yes, it matters, but that the different inflections have equal value and the discussion about the connotations sharpens our verbal palette.

Really, it’s all about having sufficient choices to bring out the flavours of food, the contrast between shade and light, the nuances of a text, about experimenting with diverse spices and tints and turns of phrase.

6th February, 2017

Jaynie: I do rather adore Ruth’s culinary metaphor there. Well done. A perfect analogy for the carefully crafted literary piece.

Perhaps my advice here, in regards to refining the vocabulary, is to give over your manuscript to a well-read third party with the pointed directive to examine whether said vocabulary engages; whether the reader is immersed in the narrative, spellbound by the ongoing action, enamored with vividly drawn characters. For if the vocabulary is spot on, it will not be noticed. It might occur to your reader, on some level, whilst immersed in your story, that this character or that event was indeed marvelously described, but she or he will be enthralled.

A poverty-stricken vocabulary, one that is limited in scope, can quickly become tedious and repetitive for your reader. It is not that one must learn multisyllabic words and utilize them ad nauseam; one can write beautifully with a simple, direct, precise prose—indeed, often this style is to be preferred. Acquiring a rich vocabulary, however, as Ruth has so aptly put it, stocks your herb shelf to bursting. And if you want a simple four-ingredient soup: pumpkin, chicken stock with a little ginger and salt, carefully combined, it will be delicious. There is, however, in these simple recipes, a secret of which all accomplished cooks are well aware: the ingredients themselves should be even more thoughtfully selected since each will have to carry more of the gustatory burden; I would recommend farmers-market fresh, preferably organic. In this respect, while the narrative prose might be clear and straightforward, the words themselves should be most carefully chosen and thoughtfully combined.

If you have, however, a more extensive repertoire to hand you can, should you so decide, experiment with all kinds of fusion cuisine. Perhaps you might want to delve into the layered intricacies of a freshly made Thai curry or the herbaceous brightness of Vietnamese spring rolls? Or the decadent layers of a rich chocolate-mousse cake? Okay, I’m starving. Whose idea was it to feature culinary cuisine in a vocabulary-feature anyway?

But, in all seriousness, I would have to say that the absolute best source of vocabulary enrichment comes from great works of literature. From W.E.B Du Bois to Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, to the poems of Langston Hughes and Emily Dickinson, from the Great Bard to Fydor Dostoyevsky. I mention, of course, very few of the many works available to the reader of contemporary writing.

These works are rightly deemed classics because their magic is pervasive and perpetual. Subsequent generations continue to be enthralled by these literary masterpieces because the vocabulary contained therein is not only a rich repertoire of the mother tongue but because these writers wield it with such wondrous facility. Read and learn. That’s what I do.

7th February, 2017

Ruth: Jaynie, I want to pick up on your idea of “fusion cuisine” because that’s so very much what English is. While the most notable “fusion” was thrust upon the Anglo-Saxons by the Norman-French almost a thousand years ago, English has sponged up words from Hindi (shampoo), Italian (sprezzatura), Yiddish (mishegas), Arabic (candy), Spanish (renegade)… I am pleased to see that your list includes authors beyond those in the DWM (Dead White Males) Club. We can also grow our word-hoards by reading authors magazines—magazines offer us a phenomenal smorgasbord of modern eloquence.

The two-lane Miracle-Gro route to vocabulary proliferation runs through dictionaries and thesauri. Word-of-the-Day calendars offer verbal boosts in palatable doses. And language courses—try Latin or Greek—can provide the building blocks for understanding new words we encounter, even when there is not a dictionary in sight.

There are some wonderful books about words as well. Two of my favourites are both about that unparalleled compendium, The Oxford English Dictionary. The first is Ammon “I’m reading the OED so you don’t have to” Shea’s hilarious Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages; the second, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester, an intricate and compassionate portrait of the relationship between the Civil War doctor who contributed literary examples to accompany definitions and the professor who was the driving force behind the greatest lexicographical feat in history.

But I would suggest that merely reading won’t make one true friends with new verbal acquaintances. As with all deep, meaningful relationships, the way to cement the bond is to use your friends. Casually drop them into dinner conversation: “Darling, don’t prognosticate doom for your siblings just because your connection to them is tenuous.” Keep a vocabulary journal and write flash fiction based on three words culled from your collection. And write letters, lots and lots of letters.

9th February, 2017

Jaynie: I think that you make a critical point, Ruth, insofar as usage is concerned. In order to render your newly acquired vocabulary (or those marvelous words you have been hoarding for fear of sounding pretentious in conversation) fluid, smoothly integrated with the more mundane verbiage that often constitutes daily back and forth, you have to actually use it. Use it in speech and use it in prose. These words need to flow trippingly from your tongue and your pen, otherwise they are jarring to the ear or the eye; they lack the natural rhythm that attends to well-lubricated language. They do not sound authentic. And in order for your letters to successfully engage your reader, the words you use must come across as vividly authentic.

Just as a complex recipe benefits from multiple makings (I will not tell you how many times I have been disappointed by my attempts at southern-style biscuits), deliberately expanding one’s vocabulary and using these new words often affords you, the writer, a greater linguistic facility that will invest your letters with added depth and power. And rather fun to be able to bring them out at dinner parties (in conjunction with that elaborately wrought chocolate-mousse cake): “Darlings, a decadent chocolate confectionary for your post-dinner delectation!”

BUT—a word of warning here—these words must come naturally to you. You must formulate your own particular literary style. While an expanded vocabulary is indubitably a marvelous tool in the writer’s repertoire, these words, indeed all words, should be judiciously and appropriately used. How do you know if you are using them in a fluent and engaging manner? In a way that enhances your letters rather than weighing them down? Natural speech provides a good clue in this regard: if you can (and do) utilize these particular words in daily conversation, with the fluency that accompanies unpremeditated dialogue, then chances are that these words, now a natural part of your own lexicon, can be used with ease in your writing as well.

Oxford English Dictionary

Ruth: Jaynie darling, you’re absolutely right. Familiarity and use will make new words second nature. Besides adding scintillating, sparkling new terms to one’s collection, compiling a range of options for more commonplace vocabulary can add dimension and variety to one’s discourse. So here are lists of some our favourite verbal gems and reliable workhorses:

  • Nouns: abluvion, apricity, credenda, kindness, urchin
  • Verbs: coruscate, defenestrate, evoke, honour, imbricate, scringe
  • Adjectives: copacetic, gimlet, idiopathic, moribund, plangent, poignant

Word groups:

  • Said: replied, responded, told, cried, whispered, whimpered, remarked, observed, noted, snapped, injected, interrupted
  • Asked: queried, inquired, begged, pleaded/pled, requested
  • Tired: sleepy, somnolent, exhausted, zombie-like, weary, fatigued
  • Write: pen, pencil, author, scribe, scribble, scripted, scrawled, scratched
  • Affect (n), affect (v), effect (v), effect (n)
  • Project, inject, eject, reject
  • Arrogate, abrogate, interrogate
  • Evoke, provoke, invoke, revoke
  • Inversion, perversion, reversion, conversion

Linking words:

  • Again, another, besides, furthermore, likewise, moreover, not only this but that as well

Turning words:

  • But, however, despite, maugre, although, conversely, nevertheless, on the other hand, still, yet

Colours:

  • Red: scarlet, blood, ruby, garnet, pomegranate, incarnadine, rose, ruddy, wine, burgundy
  • Orange: flame, amber, sunset, copper, mango
  • Yellow: sun, topaz, golden, citrine, school-bus, wheaten, brassy
  • Green: emerald, kelly, Lincoln-green, grass, forest, moss, fern, verdigris
  • Blue: cobalt, navy, sapphire, peacock, sky, ocean, lake, azure, turquoise, indigo
  • Violet: purple, amethyst, eggplant, aubergine, morning-glory, grape
  • Black: ebony, inky, pitch
  • White: snow, ivory, linen, bone
  • Grey: smoke, ash, storm
  • Multi-coloured: pied, mottled, brindled, motley, spotted

Jaynie and Ruth wrote each other’s biographies.

Regal House Publishing

Jaynie Royal is the author Killing the Bee King and the General Editor and Publisher of Regal House Publishing and its imprints, Fitzroy Books (for Young and New Adult literature) and Pact Press (an imprint dedicated to encouraging conversations that will help bridge the divisions that pervade our society). Jaynie is a talented cook, a proud parent, an educator, and a devoted epistolarian. She is also brilliant, lovely, possessed of wit and hope, and TOTALLY cool.

Ruth is the owner of PenKnife Writing and Editorial Services, the Senior Editor for Regal House Publishing, and an independent scholar who writes about Medieval and Early Modern English Literature. Ruth has a heart of gold and is a staunch and loyal advocate for the downtrodden wherever she may find them. She has a sharp wit, an incisive eye, and a marvelously dry sense of humor; in short, she is utterly AWESOME.

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