Vocabulary: Building and Using One’s Own; The Delight of Same; Its Value to a Writer




Vocabulary: Building and Using One’s Own; The Delight of Same; Its Value to a Writer

By Roger W. Smith



The following are some exchanges about VOCABULARY (no less) that I have had recently, via email, with friends and relatives, with persons who share my interests, and with readers of my blog.





Roger W. Smith, email to a relative (to whom I was writing about my habit of walking):

I just Googled peregrinations. It was absolutely right. I’m impressed with my own vocabulary! I rarely seem to use the wrong word. And you thought Muhammed Ali was boastful!





Roger W. Smith, email to Thomas P. Riggio, a fellow Theodore Dreiser enthusiast and scholar:

I love to learn new words. There is one in the article you sent me: mite. [The article was about a late nineteenth century chaplain who used to solicit money for the homeless in New York City.] It usually means an arachnid (a small one). But it also has another connotation, and is just the right word for the context in the article you sent me — it’s the perfect word here. Among the meanings of the word mite are a very small contribution or amount of money. I love when words are used with such precision, and when a writer nails it. It demonstrates the power a good vocabulary can invest in a writer.





Roger W. Smith, email to Clare Bruyère, a scholar and friend who lives in France:

I have always been assiduous about vocabulary. People tell me I have an excellent one.

I was reading a 1971 article in The New York Times Book Review by Edward Dahlberg (d. 1977), an American novelist, essayist and autobiographer, the other day. He uses a slew of words unknown to me.

His vocabulary is impressive, to put it mildly. He used quite a few words I had never seen before, and others that I was only faintly acquainted with. And, he used them all absolutely correctly.

Words used by Dahlberg, all in the same article: “mulligrubs” (ill temper; colic; grumpiness); “slubbered” (performed in a slipshod fashion); “scatophagous” (said here of Rabelais; means habitually feeding on dung, e.g., a scatophagous beetle); musky (of or like musk, i.e., the odor of same; a musky perfume; connotation: pungent); “exsanguinous” (adjective; means destitute of blood or apparently so; synonym: bloodless); “the sherds in the Mount Sinai Desert” (a sherd, or more precisely, potsherd, is commonly a historic or prehistoric fragment of pottery, although the term is occasionally used to refer to fragments of stone and glass vessels, as well; occasionally, a piece of broken pottery may be referred to as a shard); “scribble addle words” (addle: adjective, archaic; means rotten; said of an egg); “scullion reviewers” (noun, archaic: a servant assigned the most menial kitchen tasks); “Shakespeare scholiasts” (a scholiast is a commentator on ancient or classical literature); “cully” (noun; British; archaic, informal: a man, friend); “our wormy, desiccated subway” (wormy: adjective; said of organic tissue; means infested with or eaten into by worms; or of wood or a wooden object, full of holes made by woodworm; when said of a person, means weak, abject, or revolting).





Roger W. Smith, email to the Tim Robinson, editor of Penguin edition of J. M. Synge’s The Aran Islands:

Your introduction was so pithy and informative, so well researched and insightful. Your impressive vocabulary alone was worth the trip. I kept jotting down words and expressions such as immiserated, nucleate, impercipient, immiscible, detrital, excursus, “inanimate vastitude,” and so forth.





email from a reader of this blog:

Frequently, the phrases you use make you sound pompous. A good example is the ironic “sans redundancy” comment in your email of yesterday. Is there something wrong with the word “without”?


my reply:

“Sans” was used playfully (as you realize). Using another word unexpectedly can sometimes enliven a piece, amuse the reader, perhaps help to keep the reader awake, and sometimes help to nail a point. Foreign words can often be used for effect, variation, to amuse the reader, or to keep him on his toes.

For example, “trottoir,” as you know, is the French word for sidewalk. Walt Whitman, who was not actually well versed in foreign languages, loved to use foreign words on occasion, mostly French ones. (“Trottoirs throng’d, vehicles, Broadway” is a line from Whitman’s poem “Mannahatta”.) He has been faulted for this. Some people can’t realize that one is not required to always say “sidewalk” when another word might be substituted. For various reasons, including a delight in language. The other day in a blog post, I asked, “are big words verboten in writing?” Obviously, I could have used prohibited. I was using the German equivalent playfully, with irony.





email from a reader of this blog:

As for vocabulary, I don’t question your accuracy and knowledge, but sometimes question your choice. Why not “indigenous” instead of “autochthonous” in your Dreiser post? The two words mean essentially the same thing and your readers would have more easily gotten your point with the more commonly used word.

my reply:

I see your point, but one often strains to find the mot juste. Autochthonous was the best choice. There’s nothing wrong with challenging the reader. I love it when writers such as Edward Dahlberg challenge me and increase my stockpile of words. Simplicity is a virtue, but simplification because many or most readers haven’t encountered a word before is not necessarily required. William F. Buckley, Jr. could be pedantic and a showoff, but I actually liked the way he used big, arcane words. He used them well (as did Samuel Johnson two centuries earlier). Big words and arcane or archaic ones should not, a priori, be avoided; it depends on the context. Autochthonous was the perfect word to describe Dreiser. It takes years of reading and of looking up words to know and be able to use such not commonly used words when appropriate.





email from a reader of this blog:

You often try to use inflated vocabulary words in your quest to dazzle.

My hypothetical response (I didn’t actually send it):

I do have an impressive vocabulary, now that you mention it. I use it well: a big word when called for, often a simple one.





Roger W. Smith, email to two close acquaintances:


I ran across the word “portentous” in a book this evening.




1. of or like a portent

“portentous signs”

synonyms: ominous, warning, premonitory, threatening, menacing, ill-omened, foreboding, inauspicious, unfavorable

2. done in a pompously or overly solemn manner so as to impress.

“portentous moralizings; portentous dialogue”

synonyms: pompous, bombastic, self-important, pontifical, solemn, sonorous, grandiloquent




1. attempting to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture, etc., than is actually possessed.

“a pretentious literary device”

synonyms: affected, ostentatious, showy


Portentous is more or less a new word for me. It’s hard to keep the two (portentous vs. pretentious) straight.





How I Built a Good Vocabulary


Any language expert or English teacher will tell you: A good vocabulary is developed only by reading, not from conversation.

There is another obvious factor, which certainly pertains in my case: I have always assiduously looked up words. I began to cultivate the habit early and have never stopped, so that if I don’t look up a word, I feel a sense of something being neglected. My high school English teacher used to repeat the mantra: look up a word three times and it’s yours.

I still look up words conscientiously, including ones of which I may have a prior idea as to their meaning and those whose meaning I may be able to guess from the context. I want to nail their meaning down, be precise. (For a writer, this is invaluable.) And, then, I am interested in etymologies. I like to learn the origins of words. Doing so can help one remember what they mean. An example is juggernaut, meaning a huge, powerful, and overwhelming force or institution — it’s a word I learned long ago. An example of its use might be “The Trump juggernaut swept him into office.” The origin of juggernaut is fascinating. From an online etymological dictionary:

juggernaut: An idea, custom, fashion, etc., that demands either blind devotion or merciless sacrifice. A figurative use of Juggernaut, “a huge wagon bearing an image of the god Krishna,” especially that at the town of Puri, drawn annually in procession during which (apocryphally) devotees allowed themselves to be crushed under its wheels in sacrifice. [The word comes from Sanskrit.]





Argot and Foreign Words; the King’s English


An ear for slang helps when it comes to vocabulary acquisition — it helps, say, to know what wannabe or gladhandler means — as well as a readiness to converse with others from different backgrounds, cultures, and of different ethnicities (including foreigners). Foreign languages have their own words that don’t translate (ennui, bête noir). And, of course, there are the fabulous Yiddish words, which I never heard in my native New England, words such as klutz, kvetsh, mentsh, meshuga, shlep, shlemiel, tchotchke, and yenta.

Foreign language study and knowledge, of course, help greatly, especially a knowledge of Greek and Latin. It was a commonplace when I was in high school that Latin would provide a good foundation for learning English words and their meanings, as well as a basis for the study of other languages (and of grammar). I found this to be true. I have always wished that I could have learned Greek.

It goes without saying that being a native English speaker (born, as was my case, to native English speakers) is a huge advantage. I grew up imbibing the King’s English like my mother’s milk.





Vocabulary as a Tool on the Writer’s Workbench


Having an excellent vocabulary increases — exponentially as more and more new words are acquired — one’s mastery as a writer.

Vocabulary gives a writer power. Words assist and go along with complexity of thought.

It’s something akin to a composer mastering different modes and tonalities or scales, or, say, tone color, so that a piece can be scored for different instruments used for maximum effect at various places in the score. When is a particular chord appropriate? Which key? Considerations of timbre, pitch, tonality, resonance all require prior knowledge, familiarity. In the same manner, a writer has to be familiar with words beforehand and to have a store he or she can draw upon. It’s too late to start looking them up in a thesaurus; if one doesn’t already know them, one won’t feel comfortable using them.

As vocabulary increases, precision of thought increases. More subtle distinctions can be made. There are a zillion ways, for example, to say that someone is shifty and manipulative. Which is the right one? To repeat: vocabulary permits ever more subtle distinctions to be made. In describing people, situations, emotions, ideas, and so forth.

When writing, I don’t like to use words that I don’t already know. They have to already be in my quiver, my “word silo” (to mix metaphors). I do not make it a practice to seek, look up, a new (for me) word and then use it so as to (among other things) impress others with my vocabulary. But, I will admit that, lately, when I am searching for a word, I will look for synonyms on the internet. What’s the best way to say desperate? I may know that there’s a better word for my purposes, but I can’t think of it. It helps to see a list of alternative choices. But I won’t use a word that I don’t already know. I have to have a “comfort level” with the word in question.

In the case of autochthonous, which I used to describe Theodore Dreiser, the word came to mind, somehow. It was lodged in my brain. I wasn’t sure if I had used it correctly. I looked it up, and sure enough, it seemed like just the right word. Do you think before a composer sits down to write a piece, that, at that moment, he opens a music theory text or songbook to look for melodies, chords, or styles? Of course not. They’ve got to already be in his brain, so to speak. This requires extensive experience on the part of the composer with music as a listener (as a student, so to speak; as an active listener to the works of composers from various periods representing a wide variety of styles). The same thing is crucial in writing, namely, extensive reading on the part of the writer, and what goes with it: the assimilation not only of styles but also of words.

What I find is that, if the word is there somewhere, which is to say in my mental “word silo,” then fortuitous choices get made. You often chose words almost by instinct or gut feeling; you have the option of going back and checking later to (which I often do) to make sure you have used the word correctly. But, having words already there in your mental storehouse makes it a lot of fun to write, feeling very pleased with yourself when the right one pops into your head, and you, think, “Got it! That’s perfect.” It’s mentally pleasurable. It’s actually a matter of ear, just as is the case with composers. People think vocabulary is drudgery, something you have to learn by rote to get a good SAT score. Actually, words are very much part of the creative process — the writing process, that is — an essential ingredient.

We have all had the experience in conversation of sort of reaching for a word. It’s there somewhere; we want to grab it out of thin air. So we can nail a thought.

When one does so, there is a palpable sense of satisfaction; the opposite, frustration, is the case when the word eludes us. When it comes to colloquy, arguments, political debate, rejoinders, irony, sarcasm, and the like, vocabulary is a definite factor and can make or break the speaker or writer. If the expression rapier wit connotes sharpness, then a good vocabulary will sharpen the blade while a limited vocabulary will blunt it.







I have to have a dictionary at hand when I read. For years, I have kept replacing my dictionary due to its being battered, the spine broken and the cover torn from use. I would always buy the same one: Webster’s New World College Dictionary. It has clear, lucid, well written definitions and good etymologies. There are a lot of Americanisms. The dictionary provides sensitive guidance on usage, unlike the infamous Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (1961).

My Webster’s New World contains entries for all the words I ever need to look up; there has hardly ever been an exception. I never cared for unabridged dictionaries or found them useful. I purchased one, The Random House Unabridged Dictionary, from a book club once and found that I almost never used it. It seemed to me that the dictionary’s bulk was a product of having all sorts of variant forms of the same word listed as separate entries and including entries for lots of technical and specialized vocabulary used in fields such as aeronautics or organic chemistry, say, that the ordinary reader would never need to look up. And, anyway, I much prefer the clear, well written definitions in Webster’s New World.







Is a writer is obliged to always use the most common, simplest word?

No. Thank God such a rule isn’t enforced.

A point made by one of my readers to this effect — i.e., that the simpler, more common alternative should be chosen (see above) — has gotten me to think about the analogy with Newspeak. In George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, Newspeak is the official language of Oceania.

Syme, who is working on the Eleventh Edition of the Newspeak dictionary, tells Winston Smith:

It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn’t only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word which is simply the opposite of some other word? A word contains its opposite in itself. Take “good”, for instance. If you have a word like ‘good’, what need is there for a word like ‘bad’? ‘Ungood’ will do just as well–better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of ‘good’, what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like “excellent” and “splendid” and all the rest of them? ‘Plusgood’ covers the meaning, or ‘doubleplusgood’ if you want something stronger still. Of course we use those forms already. but in the final version of Newspeak there’ll be nothing else. In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words–in reality, only one word. Don’t you see the beauty of that, Winston?

(See fuller excerpt below.)

Note: I am not against the use of plain, simple, and common words a priori. The important thing, in my opinion, is that words be used correctly, and that they be used well. The key determinant is context. Variety, meaning that sometimes big words are used and at other times short, simple, and pithy ones, can enliven a piece of writing.

There’s another determinative factor here. What kind of writing are we talking about? An evocative piece about a walk in the woods? A prose poem? A piece of literary criticism? A philosophical tract? Vocabulary will vary accordingly. And, yes, a highfallutin word might spoil that descriptive piece about your nature walk.




My New Words


For the past few months, as a sort of experiment, and for the purposes of writing this post, I have been keeping a record of all the words I have looked up. The experiment shows that, despite my good vocabulary, there is always room for improvement. Is not learning supposed to be a lifelong process?

Here goes. Don’t stop reading here. Words are fun.






a simple, single celled organism






1. an idealized person or thing; 2. a specter or phantom.






a plant with and a history of use as a magical and medicinal herb






a type of building material; a covering or coating on a structure or material

used in a newspaper article about the June 2017 Grenfell fire in London







relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process; occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold

(great word; the kind I should have already known, but appreciate having in my personal word bank)






This word came up during a conversation I had with emeritus professor Thomas Kranidas, a Milton scholar. I believe that what we were talking about was the 2016 presidential election and the more general question of being of a divided mind (you don’t want someone to win, but you want their opponent to lose); the word was essential to the conversation. Neither of us knew for sure what the word meant. I looked it up when I got home and emailed Professor Kranidas.

It means (1) evasion of straightforward action or clear-cut statement, i.e., equivocation; (2) desertion of a cause, position, party, or faith. Example: “Like most politicians, he has the gift of tergiversation.”







of a menacing or threatening nature; expressing or conveying a threat (“he is unlikely to be deterred by minatory finger-wagging”)






noun, informal

a person with whom one is friendly despite a fundamental dislike or rivalry (origin: 1950’s; blend of friend and enemy)






the art or technique of compelling or persuading a god or beneficent or supernatural power to do or refrain from doing something; practiced by Egyptian Platonists






a method of growing plants using mineral nutrient solutions, in water, without soil






used by Henry James; a variant form of opalescent

means translucent glass of a color other than white






used by Theodore Dreiser, in a chapter of his “This Madness,” a serialized novel published in Hearst’s International-Cosmopolitan magazine, in the following sentence: “Of what use are words, promises, dreams, desires even, in the face of Life? This driving, compelling thing of which we are but a function, of whose dreams and moods we are but minute spicules!”

The noun spicule means a minute sharp-pointed object or structure that is typically present in large numbers, such as a fine particle of ice.





In his autobiographical work Dawn, Theodore Dreiser wrote: “one lowery Saturday night”

I have seen the word before, but wasn’t sure of its meaning; however, it can be guessed from context.

lowery is a British word (in origin) … it is also spelled (more commonly) loury

adjective: ““A lowery sky, and from it flecks of silvery light dropping lightly, like mirrored feathers.”

lour (English word) is a verb; it has the meaning of look angry or sullen; scowl (“The lofty statue lours at patients in the infirmary”) … or (of sky or landscape), look dark and threatening. I thought it meant a CLOUDY sky. It sort of does, but more precisely, it means a sky looking dark and threatening (the pathetic fallacy?).

Used as a noun, lour can mean a dark and gloomy appearance of the sky or landscape.

Lour comes from the Middle English lour (“sad or frowning countenance”), louren (“to frown or scowl; to be dark or overcast; look askant, mistrust; wither, fade, droop; lurk, skulk”); and from the Old English lowren, luren. Compare Dutch loeren, German lauern (“lurk, be on the watch”), and English leer and lurk.





crater, verb

used as a gerund as follows by Maureen Down in a New York Times op ed column:

Administration officials have been trying to reassure journalists that James Mattis, John Kelly and Rex Tillerson have a pact designed to ensure that one of them is always in the country to watch over Trump in case he goes off the deep end.

It recalled the moment, recapped by Politico Magazine, when a Nixon defense secretary, James Schlesinger, got so worried about a cratering Nixon — who was drinking and telling congressmen, “I can go in my office and pick up a telephone, and in 25 minutes, millions of people will be dead” — that he told military commanders to check with him or Henry Kissinger if the president ordered up nukes.

crater: to fail or fall suddenly and dramatically: collapse, crash (cratering stock prices)






it means something occurring while something is being born or produced; example, “a resolution that died aborning”






a fish, but can also mean a hairstyle





“sand berm”

This term stumped me. It was used in a recent New York Tines article about New Jersey beachgoers.

I looked it up. A berm is flat strip of land, raised bank, or terrace bordering a river or canal, or a path or grass strip beside a road.





divagation; a digression






means a person who has taken an oath or who performs a duty on oath, e.g., a juror.

I came across this unfamiliar (to me) term in a book by Stefan Zweig about Michel de Montaigne.






not a hard word, once you know it; it’s the adjectival form of epiphany






noun form of vitiate






means criminal, villainous; said of a person or their actions






used by a nineteenth century British author, Samuel Warren, in the following phrase: “a sense of lustrous confusion, slowly subsiding into directness”

means, as might be expected, having luster, shiny





brag (noun)

used as a noun in a book about Walt Whitman: “… after considerable brag about the success of his [Whitman’s] first edition [of Leaves of Grass] and what he proposes for the future, he announces a new American literature totally different from the literatures of the past. …”






the act of performing more than is required by duty, obligation, or need






of, relating to, or suggestive of marble or a marble statue, especially in coldness or aloofness

(This word provides a good example how connotation, as well as denotation, can be highly relevant.)






from an article in the American Phrenological Journal, 1853, cited in a book about Walt Whitman and Leaves of Grass

it means aromatic, fragrant






a transitive verb

to make miserable; impoverish.






1. a thing that has survived from an earlier period or in a primitive form; 2. an animal or plant that has survived while others of its group have become extinct, e.g., the coelacanth; 3. a species or community that formerly had a wider distribution but now survives in only a few localities such as refugia; 4. archaic: a widow







1. the quality of being vast; immensity; 2. a vast extent or space






the supposed phenomenon of being in two places simultaneously.







said of liquids; not forming a homogeneous mixture when added together (example: “water is immiscible with suntan oil”)






adjectival form of detritus






adjective; means failing to perceive something





I wish to note that I am not trying to emulate Noah Webster or compile a vocabulary primer. These are words that I personally had occasion to look up in the past few months, and in each case, the task (of looking up a word) was preordained by the matter at hand (my reading). The above words and expressions were all encountered in my recent reading. If you are inclined to say, that’s impressive, I would be inclined to respond by saying: proves my point: vocabulary is built by reading.

Can you see why it pays to look up words?





Acquiring Vocab from the Greats


Different writers, ranging from Shakespeare to Charles Dickens and from Walt Whitman to Thomas Wolfe, have their favorite words — often arcane ones –which they will use repeatedly, and this will augment one’s vocabulary. (Plus, in the case of a great writer such as Shakespeare, their coinages.) It goes without saying that literature will broaden one’s vocabulary, from pithy, evocative words to high-flown abstract ones. Usually, these words will be used wisely and well, effectively.

And, then, different disciplines have their own vocabulary and buzzwords. An avid reader with wide ranging interests will pick up many words this way. This could include specialized words used in various professions and industries and in technical fields which often have a wider use. And, the reader who is not limited to deep reading in just one field (e.g., literature) but ranges far abroad (to, say, history or the social sciences, philosophy, the pure sciences, and so on) will acquire vocabulary which, needless to say, has a wide applicability and, in itself, can broaden knowledge.

Two writers whose word usage intrigues me are as follows.





Walt Whitman


Whitman was an autodidact. His use of language, which would be impressive solely on account of his poetry, exhibits a love of words, including rarely used and antiquated ones, and inventiveness in choice of words and vocabulary. A few examples.






Whitman used this word in a notation he made in the 1850’s on a newspaper clipping. Whitman wrote: “a good word ‘scantlings’.” Floyd Stovall, author of the monograph on Whitman in which I found this quote, writes: “The word ‘scantling’ is used in the review in the sense of ‘a small or scanty portion or amount’ ” a sense that … goes back to the sixteenth century. Presumably Whitman understood the meaning of the word as used by the reviewer, but in an unpublished poem [of Whitman’s] … he obviously used it in the carpenter’s sense of ‘a small beam of piece of word.’ ”

I looked up the definition of scantling and found: “a small or scanty portion or amount; also, a small beam or piece of wood.” Whitman had some experience doing carpentry with his father, who was a house builder.






The quality or state of being esurient, which means hungry or greedy; an archaic word, derived from Latin.






plural of lackbrain (noun); derogatory; an idiot






a clumsy or awkward youth

used as an adjective, can mean awkward or clumsy






a carved tablet or drawing representing a scroll with rolled up ends, used ornamentally or bearing an inscription.

used by Whitman in Leaves of Grass as follows: “This is the lexicographer—this the chemist—this made a grammar of the old cartouches; …”






used by Whitman in the phrase ‘the far-back cumbrous old Hindu epics”







noun form of the verb to excogitate, which means to think out, plan, or devise (example: “scholars straining to excogitate upon subjects of which they know little”)

Used by Whitman in a marginal note he made in the 1850’s. He wrote: “The purposes of art are simple, and not speculative; its materials derive from nature and tradition, and not from excogitation and analysis.”





Thomas Wolfe


Thomas Wolfe continually challenges the reader, as I have recently found, with linguistic inventiveness. He seemed to have had an affinity for (but not by any means exclusively for) words derived from fields such as biology, medicine, immunology, geology, and, more generally, from the natural sciences and natural phenomena. He continually challenges the reader with words that almost give one a sense of wonder because of their apparent newness and seeming strangeness.





“spatulate fingers” (You Can’t Go Home Again)

The adjective spatulate means broad with a rounded end; the term is derived from botany and biology.







The motors roared by like projectiles, and people were passing along the pavement. … There were the three girl-friends who pass along the streets of life for ever. One had a cruel and sensual face, she wore glasses, and her mouth was hard and vulgar. Another had the great nose and the little bony features of a rat. The face of the third was full and loose, jeering with fat rouged lips and oily volutes of the nostrils. And when they laughed, there was no warmth or joy in the sound: high, shrill, ugly, and hysterical, their laughter only asked the earth to notice them. (You Can’t Go Home Again)

definition of volute: 1: a spiral or scroll-shaped form; 2: a spiral scroll-shaped ornament forming the chief feature of the Ionic capital; 3: any of various marine gastropod mollusks with a thick short-spired shell; the shell of a volute.






“he had tried not to think of it, convinced now that it was no good, that he himself was no good, and that all his hot ambitions and his vaporings were the dreams of a shoddy aesthete without talent.” (You Can’t Go Home Again)

vaporing: an idle, extravagant, or high-flown expression or speech —usually used in plural

vapor (verb): to talk in a vacuous, boasting, or pompous way






“Out of his front windows George could see nothing except the somber bulk of the warehouse across the street. It was an old building, with a bleak and rusty front of rusty, indurated brown and a harsh webbing of fire escapes. …” (You Can’t Go Home Again)

indurated: hardened





“throning traffic”


“Day by day, a throning traffic of life and business passed before him in the streets; day by day, the great vans came, the drivers, handlers, and packers swarmed before his eyes, filling the air with their oaths and cries, irritably intent upon their labor; but the man in the window never looked at them, never seemed to be aware of their existence- he just sat there and looked out, his eyes fixed in an abstracted stare.” (You Can’t Go Home Again)

Throne, verb, means to seat on a throne, to invest with kingly power.

So what did Wolfe mean here? Is this a typo for thronging? I doubt it.





murmurous, moted


“The station, as he entered it, was murmurous with the immense and distant sound of time. Great; slant beams of moted light fell ponderously athwart the station’s floor, and the calm voice of time hovered along the walls and ceiling of that mighty room, distilled out of the voices and movements of the people who swarmed beneath. It had the murmur of a distant sea, the languorous lapse and flow of waters on a beach. It was elemental, detached, indifferent to the lives of men. They contributed to it as drops of rain contribute to a river that draws its flood and movement majestically from great depths, out of purple hills at evening.” (You Can’t Go Home Again)

murmurous; adjective: filled with or characterized by murmurs; low and indistinct; the kind of sound one could expect to hear in a train station, a kind of low hum

moted, adjective; said of light; means full of motes

mote: a tiny trace of a substance, a speck







“The tall Englishman walked with a gouty shuffle. …” (Look Homeward Angel)

gouty: pertaining to or of the nature of gout

gout; a disease which causes arthritis, especially in the smaller bones of the feet, and episodes of acute pain.






“Yeah, an’ he was good, too! Only he wasn’t no Turk — he only called hisself one. The Ole Man told me he was some kind of Polack or Bohunk from the steel mills out in Pennsylvania, an’ that’s how he got so strong.” (You Can’t Go Home Again)

bohunk; noun; informal, derogatory

an immigrant from central or southeastern Europe, especially a laborer; a rough or uncivilized person






“The seed of our destruction will blossom in the desert, the alexin of our cure grows by a mountain rock, and our lives are haunted by a Georgia slattern, because a London cutpurse went unhung. Each moment is the fruit of forty thousand years. The minute-winning days, like flies, buzz home to death, and every moment is a window on all time.” (Look Homeward, Angel)

alexin: a term from microbiology; specifically, immunology, with Greek roots, defined variously as: a group of proteins in the blood serum that, when activated by antibodies, causes destruction of alien cells, such as bacteria; a protective substance that exists in the serum or other bodily fluid and is capable of killing microorganisms; complement.





“phthisic foot”

In Look Homeward Angel, Wolfe describes the stone statue of an angel, which stood for years on the porch of his father’s tombstone shop in Asheville, North Carolina.

“No one knew how fond he was of the angel. Publicly he called it his White Elephant. He cursed it and said he had been a fool to order it. For six years it had stood on the porch, weathering, in all the wind and the rain. It was now brown and fly-specked. But it came from Carrara in Italy, and it held a stone lily delicately in one hand. The other hand was lifted in benediction, it was poised clumsily upon the ball of one phthisic foot, and its stupid white face wore the look of some soft stone idiocy.””

phthisic: pertaining to phthisis; phthisis: a wasting disease of the lungs; asthma





Concrete vs. Abstract


Note that many of the words I looked up denote very specific things that one can visualize, e.g., berm, cladding, scantling. These words, because they are so specific, I find harder to remember, if, as is often the case, they refer to some observation I would not be inclined to make, for example, carpentry, a beach, building materials, and the like. Yet, they still intrigue me, especially their etymologies.

Maureen Dowd in an op ed piece used, as was noted above, the word cratering to characterize Richard Nixon’s downfall. One would ordinarily think of crater, a concrete noun (a crater on the moon). But here she was using a verb which denotes a concept. I find it easier to remember the meaning of abstract words.




— Roger W. Smith

   August 2017





addendum: One just keeps on learning. It’s one of the joys of language learning and of reading.

In a blog post about the Russian author Gogol today (August 28, 2017), I came across the phrase avant la lettre in the following sentence: “Gogol doesn’t quite fit into a genre, his work has both romantic and realistic elements, and one could even say that he was a fantastic realist avant la lettre.”

It’s a familiar phrase to me, but I realized that I could not define it, despite having a sense of what it might mean from the context.

Definition of avant la lettre (from the French): before a specified word or concept existed.

Great to know.






Appendix: George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four; an excerpt from Part One, Chapter 5


“How is the Dictionary getting on?” said Winston, raising his voice to overcome the noise.

“Slowly,” said Syme. “I’m on the adjectives. It’s fascinating.”

He had brightened up immediately at the mention of Newspeak. He pushed his pannikin aside, took up his hunk of bread in one delicate hand and his cheese in the other, and leaned across the table so as to be able to speak without shouting.

“The Eleventh Edition is the definitive edition,” he said. “We’re getting the language into its final shape–the shape it’s going to have when nobody speaks anything else. When we’ve finished with it, people like you will have to learn it all over again. You think, I dare say, that our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words–scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting the language down to the bone. The Eleventh Edition won’t contain a single word that will become obsolete before the year 2050.’

He bit hungrily into his bread and swallowed a couple of mouthfuls, then continued speaking, with a sort of pedant’s passion. His thin dark face had become animated, his eyes had lost their mocking expression and grown almost dreamy.

“It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn’t only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word which is simply the opposite of some other word? A word contains its opposite in itself. Take “good”, for instance. If you have a word like ‘good’, what need is there for a word like ‘bad’? ‘Ungood’ will do just as well–better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of ‘good’, what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like “excellent” and “splendid” and all the rest of them? ‘Plusgood’ covers the meaning, or ‘doubleplusgood’ if you want something stronger still. Of course we use those forms already. but in the final version of Newspeak there’ll be nothing else. In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words–in reality, only one word. Don’t you see the beauty of that, Winston? It was B.B.’s idea originally, of course,” he added as an afterthought.

A sort of vapid eagerness flitted across Winston’s face at the mention of Big Brother. Nevertheless Syme immediately detected a certain lack of enthusiasm.

“You haven’t a real appreciation of Newspeak, Winston,” he said almost sadly. “Even when you write it you’re still thinking in Oldspeak. I’ve read some of those pieces that you write in ‘The Times’ occasionally. They’re good enough, but they’re translations. In your heart you’d prefer to stick to Oldspeak, with all its vagueness and its useless shades of meaning. You don’t grasp the beauty of the destruction of words. Do you know that Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year?”

Winston did know that, of course. He smiled, sympathetically he hoped, not trusting himself to speak. Syme bit off another fragment of the dark-coloured bread, chewed it briefly, and went on:

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed, will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten. Already, in the Eleventh Edition, we’re not far from that point. But the process will still be continuing long after you and I are dead. Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. Even now, of course, there’s no reason or excuse for committing thoughtcrime. It’s merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control. But in the end there won’t be any need even for that. The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect. Newspeak is Ingsoc and Ingsoc is Newspeak,” he added with a sort of mystical satisfaction. ‘Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?”


3 thoughts on “Vocabulary: Building and Using One’s Own; The Delight of Same; Its Value to a Writer

  1. Tom Riggio

    You are very Dreiserian in your approach to vocabulary. I once read in an article by a literate journalist that the American writer with the largest vocabulary was Dreiser, which surprised me. Then when I came to edit Dreiser I saw it was true. He kept me running to the dictionary — and, whenever I thought he had not used a word correctly, I found it as the 4th or 5th option in the OED. He always had a huge dictionary on his writing desk. At times this put off certain readers, as I see is the case in some responses to your vocabulary.

    By the way the author of the article names Hemingway as the writer with the smallest vocabulary.

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