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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

a writer and his vocabulary

By the time I was 10 years old, I was known among my friends and classmates for having a large vocabulary and knowing "big words".

I was proud of that, or maybe I just took it for granted. But by the time I finished high school, while I knew that my English vocabulary was larger than most people's, I was conscious that the language has far more words in it than (probably) anyone can learn. Also, since I wanted to be a writer, I needed a vocabulary, and it should be bigger than that of the average person, in the same way and for the same reason that an artist's pencil collection is bigger and more diverse than that of the average person, who uses pencils only to jot phone messages.

And, in my reading, whenever I came across a word I did not know, I recognized that the writer, in knowing and using that word, had an expressive option or tool that I lacked. I came to think, "I could not have written this--I don't even have the vocabulary to have written this." Never mind talent and training, do you have the tools? It's like looking at a painting and realizing, "I could not have painted that, simply, in the first place, because I don't have those pigments!"

Want to write like Lawrence Durrell? You've got some studying to do, pal. Want to write like Thomas Pynchon? Get thee to a dictionary.

By the time I got into my mid-20s I stopped letting words go by me. I started making my own bookmarks by cutting sheets of white 8.5"x11" typing-paper into 8.5" strips. One sheet of paper would make about six bookmarks. Then, while reading, when I encountered a word I didn't know, I would stop, open the dictionary, and write out the word and its definition on my bookmark. Each bookmark became a two-sided column of words and definitions. When both sides of a bookmark became full, I would then review the words, sometimes testing myself but more often simply reading over the list and the definitions, and then discard the bookmark.

As time went on I became more rigorous. Instead of looking up only words that I hadn't seen before, I started looking up words that were not in my "active vocabulary"--words that I could not use confidently and correctly at will. What does the word fletch mean? It's kinda familiar--something to do with arrows. Yes it is: it means to feather an arrow. When you put feathers on your arrow, you're fletching it.

I've been using that system ever since. I store a sheaf of cut bookmarks at one end of a bookshelf in the living-room. The first 20 or so are all partly used. When I stop reading a book (I was going to say finish a book--but often I don't!), I slip its bookmark at the front of the sheaf. When I start (or resume) another book, it will be the first bookmark I pull out. So it's a LIFO system ("last in, first out").

The stack of books I've got on the go at any one time keeps my bookmark sheaf fairly well mixed. Each bookmark has words on it from several different books, often read at widely different times and from different fields. Usually, when I look at the words on a bookmark, I remember what book I learned them from. I get a feel for the vocabulary of the writer.

For example, a couple of days ago I finished a bookmark. I've got it right here. The first word on it is band shell. (Know it? I was pretty sure I knew what it meant, but I was just assuming--and for me, that's not good enough, so to the dictionary I went: "bandstand having at the rear a sounding board shaped like a huge concave seashell".) I remember looking that up while reading Dark Age Ahead by Jane Jacobs.

But the next word on the bookmark, carrefour, I remember from William James, specifically his Principles of Psychology. (Know it? "1: crossroads; 2: square, plaza".) The next seven words on the bookmark are all also from Principles of Psychology (inspissate, intussusception, holystone, sapid, sthenic, pyknic, whilom). But the next word is backwater, and with this I know that I've arrived at a new source--Walter Scott's Ivanhoe. Scott chewed up the rest of that side of the bookmark, and the whole back side: 29 words in all before I had to fish out a new bookmark (and I'm still not finished Ivanhoe).

It's the archaic language, of course. What are the chances that I myself will ever want to use words like malapert ("impudently bold: saucy"), hilding ("base contemptible person"), or pouncet-box ("box for carrying pomander")? I don't know. I like having the choice.

Last night Scott finished off a second bookmark--although this one had room on it for only two more words when I pulled it from the sheaf (and what were they? quean, "a disreputable woman, specifically, a prostitute"; and bar, in the sense of "railing in a courtroom that encloses the place about the judge where prisoners are stationed or where the business of the court is transacted in a civil trial"). This bookmark began with the word by-blow ("an illegitimate child"). Most of the words on the first side are from the same book, but now, darn it, I can't quite remember what that was. Whatever it was, it was quite a long time ago, and featured medieval or archaic vocabulary (ewer, shotten, collop, etc.). Darn. What the heck was it?

Anyway. Two bookmarks are ready for the recycling bag. I'll review them, and let them go.

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