Word Salad

Is delicious. I like mine with juicy ripe tomatoes, succulent cucumbers, and just a bit of finely chopped onion. But not lettuce. Greek vinaigrette, a crumble of feta, and heaven. On the other hand, you might like lots of shredded iceberg lettuce as a vehicle for ranch dressing, bacon, and cheese. Still a salad.

Still a story. Words do matter, but how much do they matter? I find myself fighting with word choice while writing from time to time. When the story is flowing I will sometimes get stuck on a word, ‘argh’ and move on, because I need to write the scene. Other times I find myself lingering and obsessing over the right word to use here.

I was thinking about this as I prepare to go over the latest manuscript with final edits. Some of what I will be doing is finessing my words. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on it. I mostly want the pacing to be solid, the continuity smooth, and the character to have a logical growth arc with setbacks for realism. I’m not writing poetry, here, just a story.

And yet there are times a well-crafted sentence can be a thing of beauty. I’m not personally a fan of novels that read like poetry, each sentence sculpted like one of those radishes carved into a rose. Those tend to be hard to follow the story, and you lose sight of the plot in this massive vegetal maze of intricate cuts and curls. Look up vegetable carving sometime… who would eat that?

Who wants to read that? Sure, sometimes I want to soak in the amazing versatility of the English language. I’ve been working on my Spanish, recently, and marveling at how much of the vocabulary I can deduce from knowing that an English word also came from that root. words like largo for long throw me a bit – I want to read that as large, which it isn’t. The ability of this language of ours to create a mental image with a few well-placed words is dumbfounding.

Most of the time, though, I am reading not to revel in the words, but the words are tools to convey as quickly and succinctly as possible the content in front of me. You can tell a deep, emotional story without using language I have to look up in my dictionary app with my phone while reading on my tablet. I do love to learn a new word, but sometimes I just want to lose myself in the story. And when I am reading non-fiction, I’d rather not have the emotional tugging and pulling. I’ve been reading a book for research, on the history of Siberia, and it’s taking me forever to get through it, because the author is spending time building a word picture that is painful to read. It’s not the writing, it’s the world through her eyes, the pervasive alcoholism and hopelessness and impoverishment of spirit… I have to walk away from it before the light fades and let some sun back into my soul from time to time.

For me, when I’m writing, I am not thinking about the level I’m writing on. I was amused, when one of my professors discovered I wrote, and asked to read one of my books, to discover that three full-tenure professors had discussed, and eventually looked up, a word I’d used. I hadn’t thought twice about it – anacephalic seemed quite acceptable as an insult when paired with goon. But it’s not the first time that I’ve had eyebrows raised over the vocabulary I use. My young adult books are, in theory, too difficult a reading level. I refused then and now, to dumb down my words. I learned much of this vocabulary in the first place by reading.

My daughter came home from school the other day, and was talking to me about a failed vocabulary test. Her teacher, it seems, had neglected to supply her with a word bank to study (she was a new transfer and it slipped his mind). She took the test, failed it, and was disappointed in herself. I looked at her and asked “you know what to do about this?” Yes, I need to read more.

Reading, voraciously, has many benefits in my humble opinion. From bibliotherapy to vocabulary, words jumbled together, combed into tidiness, and arranged in pleasing designs are marvelous things. Just like salads. The combinations are nearly infinite. In practical terms, unlimited ways to write stories, tell them effectively, and create mental images exist. And they are all delicious. Even if you don’t like lettuce.

63 thoughts on “Word Salad

    1. Depends on how much it need to be built. Don’t throw people in the deep end.

      By reading backwards through authors such as Dickens and Austen, I managed to reach not only Shakespeare but Malory with minimal need to actually look strange words up; I picked them up one by one along the way.

  1. Three full-tenure professors had to look up the word “anacephalic”? Huh. I assume they were math or chemistry professors, rather than professors of English literature, but still. (Although it just occurred to me that it might not be that none of them recognized the word, but rather than one of them disagreed with the other two about what it meant and they had to resolve the dispute with the dictionary.)

    But I can sympathize. I was once talking with some friends about the “ubiquitous black plastic bags” (in that country the plastic bags you get from shops are always black, probably because they’ve been recycled from other bags and so black is the only color you can use to cover over the previous shops’ logos no matter what those logos were). And their reaction was, “Only Robin would use a word like ubiquitous and NOT be showing off.” Until they said that, it hadn’t even occurred to me that not everyone used words like “ubiquitous” in normal conversation…

      1. Shame on them, then. I only have a minor in Chem and I know the word. Worse, anyone with a degree in the sciences should be able to guesstimate the meaning from “an-” and “cephalos”

        What ARE they teaching kids in schools these days 🙂

    1. Somebody asked me what “omniscient” meant in “third person omniscient”. OK, in this case “all-knowing third person narrator” (or, somewhat irreverently, “G-d POV”) do convey the meaning…

    2. I once had someone complain that “you always use such big words” when I used the phrase “— being the operative word.” I… hadn’t realized that “operative” was a “big word.”

      But then again, I hang out with people who either know the vocabulary or are unafraid to ask for clarification.

    3. It’s the people who expect you to not use the words they don’t know that get you. It never occurs to them that the words THEY don’t know aren’t intuitively obvious.

      1. Or worse: won’t just ASK: Hold up there: What was that word you just used?

        It takes a special kind of goober not to expect to go through life finding out stuff.

  2. One reason I love fiction is I have characters who use words I can’t use in my history writing without getting flagged for “archaic” or “distracting.” Apparently archaic means “common usage before 1950.” Who knew?

      1. They can be. I have yet to make it through gender of sociology type history articles because… eyes… closing… theory…. Zzzzxxxzzzzzz.

        There’s a reason why I don’t read my papers. I speak from an outline so I can use the words I want to use. Plus I’ve suffered through too many bad papers badly delivered. I at least want to make eye contact once before people flee for the exits. 🙂

    1. OBSOLETE, adj. No longer used by the timid. Said chiefly of words. A word which some lexicographer has marked obsolete is ever thereafter an object of dread and loathing to the fool writer, but if it is a good word and has no exact modern equivalent equally good, it is good enough for the good writer. Indeed, a writer’s attitude toward “obsolete” words is as true a measure of his literary ability as anything except the character of his work. A dictionary of obsolete and obsolescent words would not only be singularly rich in strong and sweet parts of speech; it would add large possessions to the vocabulary of every competent writer who might not happen to be a competent reader. Ambrose Bierce

  3. Running into this now. It’s a 2nd draft thriller short story. A henchman now uses “cop” instead of “police,” and has become more direct and less polite without being surly. Having to condense down the gun-geeking in the middle because it drags, the point of that scene being the henchman helps the protagonist for ulterior motives.

    This one has the word ubiquitous, too. This outfit uses gray suits as a type of uniform, and when the protagonist meets the boss, he’s “wearing the ubiquitous gray suit.” But the protagonist is a newspaper editor/columnist, so . . .

    1. I have a reasonably large working vocabulary, It isn’t uncommon among the old denizens of Baen’s Bar or the followers of blogs like this one or According to Hoyt. It is astounding compared to the vocabulary of the average English speaker. I have learned to not use most of it though. I discovered while in the infantry that most people feel like you are insulting them if you use “them fifty cent words”. I was in a lot of fights without ever understanding why until I figured that out. Remember that while word choice affects different people differently and the word that suits the situation perfectly can be misunderstood by someone without the background to appreciate it.

      1. I think the average English-readers vocabulary used to be larger. When I read older books, not necessarily high brow stuff, but even some of the pulp stories, I sometimes run across a few words I’ve not seen before, but I frequently see words that I don’t see used often.

        1. One reason I love the Kindle with the built in dictionary. Especially when I am reading older books.

          1. Yes! Ebooks mean never having to apologize for your vocabulary, because you can look it up with a touch if you can’t get it from context. This might cut down on forays through the dictionary, but it means a lot of things can be more easily learned…

        2. I think it’s important to read broadly, across as much time and genres as possible, when you are young. I’ve been encouraging my kids to do that.

          1. Wait a minute, you mean the timetraveling kindle app really works? I can read those books across time and space, without having to worry about which century they were written in or which universe? Dang, I’m going to have to find that spam again. I thought it was a joke!

        3. I don’t know if it’s larger or just a different set of words. Reading some older books makes me feel incredibly stupid until I get into the swing of the prose. But some words we use today were uncommon in that era, or didn’t exist at all.

          1. That is normal and pleasurable with Jck Vance. And then there are some of the older works of Gene Wolfe, and Steven R. Donaldson (who wishes he were Wolfe).

            1. Mr. Donaldson taught me many previously unknown words for colors. “Cerulean” stands out to this day.

          2. In one of my early fiction writing classes (yeah, I took some in the dark ages, in college — we were still writing on typewriters, so it was the dark ages, okay?) the teacher recommended that every story have at least one unusual word in it, and that we include enough context and setting to explain the word without just saying, “It means this.” Then he gave us an assignment, and handed out words.

            Mine was incunabulum. I wrote a short story about a man who paid to much attention to his prized incunabulum, concerned that the pages might get torn, until the day that his girlfriend whispered to him, “I burned your little toy.” Something like that. Anyway, interesting way of pushing our vocabulary.

          3. Wolfe yes, but not so much Vance if you read enough 19th C fiction for fun (I still remember when a character of his hired a charlatan, and I laughed because I’d already looked that one up as a kid in Little Women. Mr. Wright, always manages at least one, though mainly because I don’t know what all the parts of say, barding, are called.

            Fun to learn though.

      2. Encountering an expanded vocabulary might be off-putting to some people, but I find the media-driven slang to be quite annoying.

        The first time someone called me a “homey” we had a massive failure to communicate.. For some reason he felt he was the one who should be offended…

  4. I constantly shock people when i tell them i only have a “high school” education. Or that I failed grammar all through public school (used to have the report cards to back that up.) It always comes back to how much I read or have read in my life. Not just fiction, history, science (even if it’s a pop science book), biology, or politics. Key is to try not to restrain ones reading habits.

    1. You might be amused to know linguist classify English as a “weak grammar language”… Not “easy”, mind you, just weakly inflected and highly irregular.

  5. “The Life of Pi”, both the book and the movie, struck me as being too beautiful for their own good. I enjoyed them . . . but . . .

  6. On the other hand, I recently line edited a book for a colleague. It was a polymer science book. I was pleased to note — he is not a native speaker of English — that he used “immament” correctly, as the verb that it is.

    However, through fantasy fiction we have a splendiferous opportunity to enhance the vocabulary of the younger generation.

  7. Well, in defense of the profs, they may have wondered about “anacelphalic” because the more common version of that is “anencephalic.” I notice that the only online place that does NOT redirect to “anencephalic” is for the medical phrase “anacephalic fetus.” So I would wonder whether the narrow medical usage might be the issue here rather than profs not knowing their greek roots … just thinkin’ out loud …

    1. And here I thought the correct word was “acephalic.”

      “The English,. she is-a verra strange…”

      1. ‘Acephalous’ means having no head. ‘Anencephalic’ means having a head with nothing inside it. ‘Anacephalic’ is an error for the second term. ‘Acephalic’ is a possible form of the first one, but is not in technical use.

  8. Here’s a tip for improving your Spanish, if you don’t already know it: trying reading a novel on a Kindle using a bilingual Spanish-to-English dictionary. Without the dictionary, it’s almost impossible to read if you have to look up even one word in twenty, but with the dictionary, you can mange it even if it’s one word in five.

    I’ve studied Spanish since the 1970s and been conversationally fluent for most of that time, but until I tried reading on a Kindle with a dictionary, I never succeeded in reading more than a few pages of a novel. With a Kindle, I managed one in just four days.

    The first chapter was a real slog, but I made progress quickly By the last chapter, I was flying. It was an enormously satisfying thing to do.

    I blogged about it at the time, if you want to read about how I did it and what supplementary materials were helpful. Best of luck!


    1. I have a copy of selections from The Canterbury Tales on facing pages, English and standardized Chaucer English. Every so often, I see how far I can get in the Chaucerean English without reference to the facing page.

      My husband contends that Chaucer was grammatically modern. (Long story on that one, but his history thesis was on the development of the English language in the century prior.) I will agree with him that Elizabethan English is basically modern once you swap out the slang.

      1. I have The Divine Comedy in a facing-page edition like that. Every once in a while, I have a go at teaching myself 14th-century Florentine. I would get on better, but there are no 14th-century Florentines around for me to talk to, so it is hard to motivate myself to keep going.

    2. Thank you! I’ve been working through duolingo – I had a year of Spanish in college, on top of Spanish in Elementary along with Latin – but I was wondering how to get further into it after I’m done with Duo.

      1. I am using an app called Memrise for French currently. Tried Duolingo but got too frustrated with it. Especially the speak back feature. :/

  9. Excellent post. A personal tangent: Sometimes you write to be read, and sometimes you write to be read aloud. Too many people forget how something will sound read aloud. I think of liturgical readings in church as a good example. I am a KJV Bible person, mostly because the language was written by people who thought about how something would sound read aloud in church, not merely read.

    Poetry needs better word choices mostly because of the intentionality of being read aloud.

    Off soap box.

    1. Yup. Leaving aside dialects, there are three different languages called English: ordinary spoken English, written English, and oratorical English. One reason I gave up the formal study of linguistics is that modern linguists recognize only the first language as valid, and think the second and third are just Evil Classist Tools of the Patriarchy. But there are very sound reasons (grounded in information theory) why written English needs a stricter grammar than spoken, and why oratorical English operates under still more constraints.

      1. I always enjoy the study of linguistics as a HOBBY. I can see how having it be your formal subject could, sometimes, take the fun out of it.

        Back to my aside, when our church book club read “God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible, it was the first time I understood why the KJV sounds so good: it was meant to be spoken.

        One of the author’s foundational principles was that England of that day — End of Elizabeth, beginning of James — might not have had great visual art or architecture, but they were master’s of the word itself, of the spoken word. I’m saying it poorly vs. what the author said, but it explains why Shakespeare was able to bloom when he did, and why we fall short.

        One other aside, the author said they chose words in the translation with as many meanings as possible sometimes — not to clarify, but to almost cloud up the issues. But it makes the text denser, and actually less sectarian.

        Okay, off soap box. LOL.

  10. I grew up reading Vance, Smith and Lovecraft. They are my literary eidolons, and a murrain on anyone who dares gainsay me!

  11. Wasn’t there something in the last several months about a woman “of color” being accused of plagiarism for daring to use the word ‘hence’?

  12. I work with many ESL people and I don’t dumb-down my vocabulary by-design: Google Translate does a much better job with esoteric words with a single definition than it does with common, possibly ambiguous words.

    If I pick something too outre (why use English when there’s a perfectly good French word available?), I’ll lookup the translation myself and include it.

  13. I started reading Edgar Rice Burroughs in the first grade after I saw Tarzan sitting on the shelf in the library. I went through all the Tarzan series followed by the rest of the shelf. I ended up reading the first few books in the library (it was summer and the library was the only building I could sit and read in that had air conditioning) with a dictionary open on the table next to me. The librarian told me that it was too advanced for me but she used to ask me about the book I was reading when I didn’t give up on Burroughs.

    When I write now I almost always have thesaurus.com open in a browser tab along with several sites for names. I occasionally need to look for the word that fits perfectly and coming up with names, especially foreign names, is more fun if you have the meanings.

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