vocabulary muscles




No reason for those words. Well, yes, one moment. I just read “filament” in a reading about dandelions: “Yet is there anything more lovely than a sea of yellow dandelions by the side of the road in June? Or as remarkable in transformation as the filaments of the mature dandelion blowing on the wind?”

The word “filaments” in that last sentence gives me great pleasure because I see the wisp of translucent white float out into the air. One word–robust, full, evocative–the perfect word.

A robust vocabulary enlarges our world. We can reach farther and deeper when we pluck the words “nebula” or “sonar” from our vocabulary arsenal, our vocabulary toolbox, our vocabulary knapsack, our vocabulary sandbox. And you see what vocabulary accomplishes in that last sentence–do I view vocabulary as a weapon, a tool, a traveling companion, a plaything?

How do we develop a working robust vocabulary? By reading. A lot. Read what pleases you. Notice the words. Practice them. Make them yours.

But don’t fall prey to thesauritis. (This is not a real disease but a neologism I just created.) The thesaurus is a requisite item in a writer’s toolbox except when the writer hunts for and plucks a word without really getting to know that word. Here’s an example: “The hiker worried about the ominous and fuliginous sky.” (I take full responsibility for that sentence but have modeled it on an example in a published novel.) The word “fuliginous” means dark, dusky, obscure. But “fuliginous” is so far out of anyone’s ken that it sits in the sentence like a huge boulder. The word “ominous” already does the job, and it doesn’t bruise the reader’s eyes.

Go find your own vocabulary sandbox and enjoy those creative pings–those satisfied moments when you’ve discovered the perfect word.


dementia word soup

I am now in almost daily face-to-face contact with my mom, who has Alzheimer’s, although she refuses to link the word “dementia” to her increasing problems. One indication of the disease has been the slipping away of nouns. As I listen to my mom string a sentence together, I imagine her in an intense linguistic workout, where 10 reps of word-searching yield a long phrase to replace the noun. A “remote” becomes a “blower that pushes buttons and opens things.” A “library” becomes a “place where they have things you can look at.”

These days, I ask my mom again and again what she means until I can decipher her word soup. Anyone caring for someone with dementia knows that a macabre sense of humor helps–any sense of humor helps. And so I wonder how I can recuperate what seems so sad–my mother loved to read and read fast, and she worked as an editor for academic publications. No longer.

So I’m moved towards poetry. Mom’s word soup can be poetry. She can be a demented poet. Poets give us images we might not otherwise see. So a star becomes a hole in the sky, perhaps. Maybe one way to get visionary is to let go of nouns and re-name things with a string of words. I promise here to view my mother as a language teacher–not as a former reader and writer to be pitied.

Update: 26 July and at lunch, Mom tried cheddar & sour cream potato chips. She wasn’t sure she liked them. She said they were hot and then followed up that observation with this: “They left a message on my tongue.”  If that’s not poetry, I don’t know what is.