The right words in the right order….the foundation of every phrase, every sentence, every paragraph, page, chapter, volume…is made of words. In speech, the dictionary meaning of words is often less important than the physical speaker’s visual and auditory presence: facial expression, not just one but several in sequence..gesture and posture–again, not just individually but the sequence, the tone of voice, the loudness of voice, the speed of utterance, the fluency or lack of fluency in the speech…all of these things affect the formal meaning of the words. The same simple sentence can carry not only different shades of meaning but directly opposite meanings. Takes, for instance, “I don’t want to do that.” Emphasize a different word each time you read it aloud: I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to do that. If you then imagine a ? at the end of each version and read again. The words haven’t changed but the meanings are not the same.
But the meaning of words still matters, and the right words in the right order will improve your writing. So…everybody has a dictionary and a thesaurus, right? Yes, dictionaries are available online, but they’re better for looking up a word you’re not sure of when you read it. We should all do that any time we’re not sure what the word means or if it’s spelled that way or another way. For writing, we need dictionaries in an additional way: we need the nuances of the word’s meaning through time. For that, we need a dictionary with more information about the word. If you have a house the size of a really big library, and you happen to have collected historical dictionaries over the last 200 years, you can hunt through them for how words have been used over time. Or…you can use a university or large city library–if one is available to you–and consult the big, multi-volume dictionary they have. I did that in college, though I didn’t yet understand how useful it was to someone “just writing.” And that historical dictionary, whose contributors have researched the history of every word …back down to the languages it came from and the usage through time…that historical research dictionary, for the English language is very likely to be the Oxford English Dictionary, the OED. The Compact OED has been for decades the lower-cost alternative to the multi-volume version. Harder to read, yes, with multiple pages per page, but the real stuff is in there. If you’ve good youthful vision, it’s worth the price. I’d still be using it if I could still use it.
The alternative, if you don’t live close enough to a big library or can’t get approved to have access–and as a freelance writer on a short budget living in a small town 50 to 100 miles from the nearest source–is to suck it up and buy your own OED. I used to think that was impossible…and in a sense, it is except for the luckiest writers. The current edition–with the flood of additional words in the last 45 years–is 20 volumes. It takes 4 feet of shelf space at least, with them squished in. The volumes are just over 13 inches tall, and need a shelf at least 10 inches deep. There are older, used editions; this one has 13 volumes; you might find an older one with fewer. I think I remember seeing a 10 volume set back down the years but can’t swear to it. This one was described as “near fine” condition and I haven’t seen any damage to it other than small changes in color of the edges of the pages–it’s been where some light and some oxygen could get to it, and it’s a 1978 printing–45 years old. If you’re a serious scholar or writer, and you aren’t stuck in one of those tiny city apartments (in which case you may well have access to an OED in a library) then saving up for one is feasible. Yes, it’s years of saving. Yes, I have an OED in the room, right now, and have already spent several wonderful hours just letting my mind graze over a couple of pages in this volume, a couple of pages in that…what’s that word? Wait, there’s TWO WHOLE PAGES on that other word? Why?
And already, in just those few hours, just running around like a terrier in a field, sniffing here, digging there, 18 words…words I didn’t know at all, words I thought I knew thoroughly (ha!), words whose alternate meanings I hadn’t known, and whose derivation I certainly hadn’t known. I thought I knew “stark” for example. I knew some variant meanings…by no means all. And those variant meanings color, or at least shade, the meanings I did know. Those variant meanings and usages (when I’ve absorbed the several pages of them) will change how I use the word myself. I haven’t used it in a meaning it didn’t already have, but I haven’t made use of its full chromatic range.
Writers benefit from a large vocabulary, not so that they can show off how smart they are or how educated–but so they can choose the right words in the right order to convey to readers what they want to convey, and so readers–meeting an unfamiliar word–can grasp from context what it means and something of its flavor. Particularly in fiction, the right words make it easier for readers to imagine the fictional world, the fictional culture, the fictional character. A thesaurus can help you find a bunch of words that relate to a concept you want to use (kindness, government, teaching, water) and then you can explore those words, trying them out in your text, looking them up in the dictionary, until one suddenly slots itself into your current wip, the missing puzzle piece…it’s not sort-of what you meant, or the first word that came to you, but a deliberate choice and you know WHY it fits there.
No resource is infallible…I asked my naval consultant if he knew what a fife-rail was (he did) and he told me about another term I’d never heard: “baggywrinkle”…so I went looking for it in my new research set. I found baggyminnow, but not baggywrinkle. So now I have a word new to me that the OED doesn’t have. Or this edition doesn’t have. (Baggywrinkle: a length of cordage frayed out and then coiled around a specific spot on a sailing vessel’s rigging that contacts the sail at some point of sailing, so that the contact is softened and doesn’t fray the sail prematurely. And I certainly hope I’ve described it correctly, because I’m sure someone will correct me if I didn’t.) Since I write rarely about sailing and have people who know a lot more check stuff when I have to get a character somewhere by water, I don’t think I’lll *need* baggywrinkle, but you never know. I do know there are words in the new volumes that I will need as long as I keep writing, and I know that prowling around in there is not just procrastinating, playing n the rabbit holes, wasting time, but absorbing the very stuff–the language, the words–that I make stories out of.
Very happy little word-terrier tonight. I’m very lucky to have been able to bring this treasure home. A fife rail–where the fifer sits as the anchor’s drawn up. A luddock–a bullock’s buttock, when the butcher cuts up the carcase. To lue is to sift through a screen. A hop-d0g is not a dog that hops up and down, but a tool for removing the poles from a field of hops, with a knife for cutting off the hop vine and a hook for yanking the pole out of the ground. Antelope do stot–bounce along hitting the ground and rebounding with all four legs at once–but any rebounding motion is also stotting (in dancing, for instance.) A hoppet can be a benign enclosure for a pony or a sheep–a paddock–or it can be a place to confine criminals. That row of cream-colored volumes, is a place to let the mind wander freely, all the way back to Old Saxon and Old Norse, and from all the corners of the world where English speakers have snagged a new word and brought it home and found a use for it. (Words are still available to their original speakers; unlike stolen artwork, artifacts, etc.)