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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, August 26, 2005

the writer and his vocabulary

Kimmie took today off, so a chance to sleep in--till 7:30, in my case. But K was up first and had made the coffee--a treat! Downstairs to key notes: Alexander the Great, A History of Technology.

I've just gone to fetch one of my "finished" bookmarks. Since the age of about 21, I've made bookmarks by cutting plain white bond paper into 8" x 2" strips. In my reading, if I come across a word that is not in my active vocabulary--that is, a word that I don't feel confident about using exactly, whether I recognize it or not--I interrupt my reading to write the word on the bookmark, look it up, and write the definition next to the word. By both looking the word up and writing down the definition, I seek to remember the word better than if I had just looked it up.

Because I always have several books on the go at any one time, and sometimes return unfinished books to shelves with their bookmarks still in them as a cue to where to start reading from again, when I get back to them (often several years later), there are many of these bookmark-slips in circulation. I keep several partly finished ones on a shelf in the living-room, and several more on a shelf here in my office. Therefore, each bookmark usually bears the traces of reading in many different books, with interesting juxtapositions of vocabulary. And when I pull out a partly used bookmark to slip it in a new book, I can review the words already recorded on it, as a reminder.

Words have always been important to me, and I've always had a large vocabulary compared to other people around me. I was already known for it in grade 4. Often I remember exactly where and when I first learned a word. For example, I know the term aa-aa lava from a dictionary of science that was owned by my roommate Keith back in 1980. It was the first entry. Somehow, Keith, Brad, and I got into one of our satirical or goofy interludes, maybe with a decision to memorize every term in the (very large and heavy) dictionary. We would have opened it to the first page and uttered the word, and then the definition, which I remember: "a lava which is blocky, scoriaceous, and exceedingly rough". I remember laughing a lot with Keith and Brad over that definition--maybe it was the "exceedingly rough" part.

I learned the word lachrymose from my late friend Harvey Burt at the dinner table one night. This too was in the early 80s, when Mara and I invited Harvey and his wife Dorothy over for dinner while Mom and Jackie were away traveling. The conversation was about levels of difficulty of vocabulary--why there are seemingly different words for the same thing, of different levels of difficulty (I remember using the examples stubborn, obstinate, and obdurate.) So for me the word lachrymose will always be tinged with the memory of Harvey, his teaching (he was an English teacher by profession), and that evening back at our co-op townhouse in Sitka Square.

So words, for me, have whole networks of association, not unlike (although not so strong as) the associations linked to music, or smells.

Sometimes I relearn a word in the course of using it. In about 1985 I finished a short story called "A Tourist Visa" based on an unexpected visit I paid on my long-lost grandfather in Latvia in 1982 (I'd started writing the story while I was still in Latvia in his apartment). In the story my character, getting shaken down by the Soviet Intourist officials (that was true), leaves the official with an index card on which he has printed the English word extortion. His intent was that she would look up the word in an English dictionary. Of course, I looked it up myself to make sure it meant what I thought it meant. First I had to check extort. Here's what I found:

to obtain from a person by force, intimidation, or undue or illegal power: wring


Good. And extortion:

the act or practice of extorting esp. money or other property; esp: the offense committed by an official engaging in such a practice

Bull's-eye! When deciding on the word, I hadn't even been consciously aware of its special reference to officials engaging in the practice--and yet that is exactly the shade I required. I find that this often happens: I reach for a word, and exactly the right meaning is attached. I write a word, then look it up to check its meaning, and discover that its meaning is exactly what I intend--perhaps even better than what I'd thought.

I believe this is partly the result of my lifetime pursuit of vocabulary-building. I look words up not once, not twice, but as many times as it takes to get them into my active vocabulary. Often I meet a word I've looked up several times before, but if its exact meaning is not clearly in my mind, I look it up again, and write down the definition. I can't stand the idea that any word is beyond my ability to use exactly and with confidence.

When reading, if I encounter a word I don't know, I feel a little qualm of inadequacy. I feel vocabularicly inferior: this writer knew that word, and I don't; I could not have written that sentence because I lack the vocabulary. This spur of inadequacy drives me back to the dictionary. As often happens, feelings of inferiority lead to superior achievement.

Which is not to say I don't enjoy learning words; I do. I like the scrupulousness of pausing to look up a word and write down its definition. I feel a bit disappointed with a book that does not require me to do this.

When I finish a bookmark? I review the words on it, see if I can remember the definitions, then send it into the recycling bag. Since I have so many in circulation, it doesn't happen that often.

The last word I entered on a bookmark? The final entry on this bookmark was hominy. I knew the word hominy and thought I had a good idea of what it meant. But I didn't know exactly what it meant.

Do you?

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