More than a few readers have written to tell me they’re surprised by the vocabulary in Birthmarked, enough so that I was unsurprised to be in another conversation about “avuncular” last Friday. We love our words, don’t we? Especially the fun and pithy ones.
When I’m writing and revising, I consult a couple of dictionaries and a thesaurus regularly. Often I have the meaning of something in mind but the first word that surfaces doesn’t have the color or emphasis I want, so the thesaurus nudges me towards a better choice. “Dimwit” is quainter, for instance, than “idiot,” but still has a bite. Sometimes I think I’m using a word correctly, like “slue,” but I need to check to be sure.
I particularly relish encountering new words I want to adopt, and I keep a list to remind me of them until I’ve memorized them. Recent entries include: “proclivity,” “vicissitude,” “litotes,” “ineluctable,” and “Sisyphean,” all of which I’m still shaky on.
Some words remind me of people. My dad is the only one I ever knew to say “desultory” aloud. “Grotesque” reminds me of my mom because she taught me how not to pronounce it, and “supinate” I learned from my son, who fences. Some words I associate with the books I first saw them in, like A Handmaid’s Tale taught me “palimpsest,” and The Road gave me the creepy “catamite.” I haven’t used that one in my writing yet.
The only time I don’t use a word I really love is if a simpler word would make the meaning come through more cleanly and I can’t risk interposing the distraction an unfamiliar word. “Supinate” is a good example. It means to turn your hand palm-upward, and there’s a point in Prized when Gaia does precisely that. It’s a small but important moment. Since “supinate” is not in the dictionary I most frequently consult and I never knew it until lately, I suspect it’s rare, and I don’t want the reader to have to scratch her head when I’d prefer to have her thinking about the light. So here’s what I have:
She held her other hand out, too, turning it in the light, and then she stepped down the two steps and pushed out into the garden where sun fell on her bare head and shoulders….
I would dearly love to substitute “supinating it in the light,” but no: “turning” is the right word. I’d like to think Strunk and White would commend my restraint.
My other favorites these days are “eviscerate,” “coruscate,” “sylvan,” and “hyperbole.” It helps when they’re pleasurable to say. “Unlake.” I like that one, too.