Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Vocabulary Rocks!

by Sharon Lathan

I love words! I always have. Even during my decades as a reader, before the writing bug bit me, I delighted in discovering new words as I devoured the text. It was not uncommon for me to stop where I was, grab down the enormous dictionary that goes with my encyclopedia set, and look up the unfamiliar word. If I was really absorbed in the novel I may just jot it down on a scrap of paper for later investigation, but eventually I had to find out what the strange word meant. In school I was an excellent student, but honestly could care less about grammar. Whether a particle was dangling or a phrase was prepositional did not fascinate me all that much, but man I was a terrific speller! And vocabulary was a passion.

Enter the past few years as a writer. I did not pick to write in the bygone days of folks getting a superior education and using flowery prose on purpose, but it was an added bonus that I grabbed onto with glee. That Cambridge graduate Mr. Darcy and well-read Elizabeth Bennet would possess a vocabulary way better than even Tim Gunn was a given. And I love it! I very quickly learned that my limited knowledge of Regency Era phrases and nouns was inadequate for the job. So, after retrieving my old, ratty crossword puzzle dictionary and dashing out to Barnes and Noble to buy a thesaurus, I then began scouring the internet for research facts to help me ‘get it right.’ Along the way I discovered a couple interesting realities.

First, the internet is replete with reference material and historical information. Yeah, you all probably knew that AGES ago! But I was never much of a web-surfing junkie. Other than taking an active part in one Lord of the Rings discussion board and occasionally buying something off Amazon, the internet was not my friend. I barely knew what Google and Yahoo were! I rapidly learned that there are veritable seas of dictionaries and thesauruses out there that put my bound copy to shame…and are way easier to utilize. Now I have over a dozen bookmarked links to the OED, word etymology, grammar and punctuation, etc. My links to historical websites is probably ten times longer. I frequently get so lost while rifling through the thesaurus or endless Google searches that I forget what I was looking for in the first place! Of course, along the way I have many times stumbled across a mega-cool word that I just have to use, or have learned about some past activity that I just have to write in. Whole chapters have evolved based on something I accidentally discovered while looking for something else. So, questions #1 and 2 are: What great reference websites have you discovered? How often has your research led you down a path you never dreamed of previously?

The second discovery I made was that writing in a long ago, English era presented unique obstacles that this 21st century American had not foreseen. Yes, I could flagrantly go crazy with my vocabulary since my characters would not have looked stupid for using the word ‘flagrant.’ I could toss in fancy words with numerous syllables without blinking. Let my readers run for the dictionary! It is good for them to be better educated, I reason, so I am actually performing a public service! But, I also had to learn a wealth of words that just do not roll off the modern day tongue too easy. Cravat, barouche, valet, flintlock, quadrille, nankeen, just to name a very few. Luckily I adore history even more than I love vocabulary, so it has never been painful. However, the challenge is terrific. If I call something by a wrong name, believe me, some Austen/Regency expert will point it out in the most scathing way! On top of that, I have to be veeerrryyy careful about word etymology. I simply cannot, under any circumstances, have Mr. Darcy utter a word that did not exist 200 years ago! Talk about a challenge of epic proportions!

Now, to be truthful, I believe the average reader would have no idea about most words and their etymology. Unless it is grossly modern (and those are usually easy to avoid) most readers are probably not savvy and/or do not care. Some folks will, of course, but my personal opinion is that if they get freaked out over a word used in Darcy-Standard-Time zone that did not first appear until ten or fifteen years later, they are probably missing the point of the story and would have hated it anyway! But that is just my opinion and to appease the various editors, I have changed many words along the editing process. Did you know that ‘surreal’ did not exist until 1935?! Yet, ‘psychology’ dates from the 1650s. Weird. Word etymology is fascinating, at least to nerdy me, but it is a trap that one can fall into and never escape from. Searching down each and every word simple cannot be done or I would never get anything written, so a certain amount of latitude and liberties must be allowed, IMHO. So, last questions: How has word definition, etymology, or era-specific verbiage hindered you? Or set you free? Have you avoided writing in past eras just for this reason? Or do you just say ‘What the hell’ and throw them in there anyway?


  1. I too am a lover of words, Sharon. Some of my favorite classes were Latin and Linguistics, which covered two different sides of the mystery of words. As to the language used in a story, I am of two minds, and it depends on the tone the author takes. If the author seems to be shooting for strict realism, then I have trouble accepting obvious anachronistic phrases. If the author's tone is more laid back, then I figure, "Hey, let's just assume that they would have spoken in their day's equivalent words," and move on with enjoying the story. Happens in the movies all the time. Glad to know I'm not the only word-nerd out there.

  2. Word nerds unite! Great post, Sharon, and welcome to the Casa family! As a tried and true contemporary writer, I don't have to worry about this as much as you historical girls do. It's interesting to realize that every word has a history that plays into the work.

  3. I'm with you Sharon. I love finding the right word to give the flavor of the era and sometimes spend hours looking for one. I do like to make the context clear, if I use something not in general use today, so the reader doesn't have to pause to look the word up if they don't want to. If they don't know a word like phaeton, the fact that it is a carriage will be crystal clear from the action/dialogue. My goal being not to turn off a reader new to the genre.

    Reading gives us access to words that might not show up in everyday conversation.

  4. Words? I adore them. I love to taste them on my tongue and roll them around in my mouth. I love their sounds, their rhythms. I'll happily spend hours with a thesaurus, cross-referencing words until I find the one that has the precise shade of meaning I need.

    I don't write Regencies, but I face an analogous problem with heroes who are in the Navy. I try to slip enough NAVSPEAK into my books to lend verisimilitude, however sometimes I opt for a more general term my readers will understand rather than the specific one my characters would actually use. My favorite online resource is a dictionary of Navy slang.

  5. No dictionary can help me, unless it's one from Star Trek! LOL!!!! I have to look into the future and try to figure out what words will stand the test of time, or make up new ones!

  6. LOL I think we all love words. And I bet everyone hates playing scrabble with us, huh?

    And yes, I love playing with words in my writing. Especially when dealing with immortal characters, it's fun to slip in the odd mayhap and betwixt into the dialogue now and then. I also enjoy taking into account where my characters come from, where they were raised. I love playing with slang.

  7. Since the subject is words, here's one for you. I'm looking for an antonym for betray.

  8. Thanks for the great comments! Sorry I am late in responding. Today was my 'night' of sleep after a crazy 12-hour shift. Forgive any residual fuzziness or typos! I figured we were all 'word nerds' to some degree. I suppose it is a prerequisite to being a writer...a good one at least.

    Christina, I agree with you about anachronisms and realism. The problem is how difficult it is and at what point one has to be given some grace. I opt, in my writing, for a midway point: I try to be as true to the time as possible, certainly with the appropriate nouns and so on, but also am not trying to BE Jane Austen, or anyone from that Era. I want a modern-day, average reader to be able to easily enjoy my novel with out needing a University English Professor to translate!

    Thanks Marie! It is unbelieveably wonderful to be here. Yes, I figured contemporary writers have it a wee bit easier, but I am sure there are places where the challenge arises, especially if one is writing football-ese!

    Michele, I figured you would relate the most! Ha!! You are very correct in needing to make the text clear. That is another trap. Using the right name for something is all well and good, but unless the reader is a Regency/History nut, they will get quickly lost. Again, IMHO, a reason to find that 'happy medium' between being true while staying modern and accessible to all.

    "I love to taste them on my tongue and roll them around in my mouth." I LOVE that! Thanks Mary Margret! :) I do often speak aloud, and then my kids think I am off the deep end! Finding that precise shade of meaning is so critical. Usually as I am searcing it is because I have this strange 'feeling' of what I am trying to say, just at a loss as to the one word that will perfectly convey it. Then, the joy of finally finding it! YES!! Your personal example is a good one. I encounter it with speaking medical-ese while talking to those outside the hospital. Must be very careful. Luckily, in your case, there are probably not too many macho Navy Seals reading your book, so they would be the only ones who could call you on a misstep!!

    Yeah, Cheryl! That is what I need to do someday, just for fun. Write a sci-fi so I can just go crazy and never have to worry about someone telling me it is wrong!!

    Oh, Nancy... I kick ASS at Scrabble!!! Wanna take me on? *evil grin*

    Thanks so much ladies for the warm welcome! Now, I am off to look up an antonym to betray.......

  9. Some choices:

    advocate, defend, champion, vindicate, shield, shroud, safeguard, harbor, guarantee, shelter, prophylactic, support, ward

    Good luck!

  10. the online etymology dictionary is a must! also Google maps - especially the street view feature, google images, for other places that are too grainy in google maps. I lived on google maps when writing In Over Her Head because it's set in the North Atlantic and there's literally NOTHING there other than the mid-Atlantic ridge and Bermuda. Very challenging, which did affect how my story evolved, but I am so thankful for that website.

  11. Sharon-

    I love that you mentioned Tim Gunn! His vocabulary is incredible--I giggle profusely every time he says "Designers, you will have 30 minutes to causcus..."

    Words are wonderful! Some of my favorites are "doldrums" and "lackadaisical" because they sound so much like what they mean.

    Great post!

  12. Hi Danielle!

    Yeah, Tim kills me! Love that guy!! I also love how the designers will all be giving each other glances behind his back, usually having no clue what he said! Ha!! Priceless.

    I am pretty sure I have used both your words at some point! They are great. If not, I am adding them to the 'write-a-sentence-for-them' list! One of my favs that I stumbled across and then wrote in was 'braggadocio.' Anyone know what it means? :)

    Hi Judi, fellow NB!

    I use the Merriam-Webster site too, plus I have the program on my laptop for those times when internet access in unavailable., do not get me started on maps! I survive on them, especially in writing about England, where I have never been. And OLD maps, to boot. So cool. But, that is another essay. :)

  13. Great post, Sharon! I love words Linguistics class in college was fascinating. Well, I and the one other person who didn't sleep in that class thought. Guess I'm a verifiable Word Nerd too. Which is why I saved my naps for Geology class.

    I give you much credit. The language is one of the reasons I adore reading Regenices, and one of the big reasons I fear writing them. LOL on Tim Gunn...I KNOW he's used "braggadocio" on the show! The man is fabulous in so many ways...