Look It Up!

Wednesday, June 10, 2020
The other day I sent a text to Youngest Junior Hall:

“You working? I need to have a quick chat. And yes, I know quick chat is an oxymoron.”

He called a few minutes later and said, “You have 12 minutes.” And I laughed and said, “Fine. By the way, do you know what an oxymoron is?” I could hear the irritation in his voice when he replied, “Yes I know what an oxymoron is: Jumbo shrimp.”

Granted, he may have looked it up, but I don’t think so. Jumbo shrimp sounds like a food that stuck in his adolescent brain. So that kid knowing oxymoron kinda made my day. I mean, he may not see the importance of regularly washing sheets but he knows his words.

As writers, we need to know our words, too. Of course, there’s much more to knowing words than definitions, but that’s a good place to start.

As one who reads constantly, there’s rarely a day that goes by that I don’t look up a word. Sometimes, I’ll check a word because I have no idea what it means. But I also look up words when they’ve been used differently. Either way, I improve my vocabulary, an integral tool of my trade. And when I write, I’m constantly looking up words, too, making sure that I’m using a word correctly. Or perhaps I’m looking for a word that’s similar and a better fit for my audience. Which brings me to word choice.

Years and years ago, new neighbors invited me and Mister Man to a lovely dinner. And sometime during the evening’s conversation, I used the word “malfeasance.” More than once. And Mister Man was not happy with me. Not because he didn’t know the word or because he didn’t think our new neighbors knew the word but because he thought I was being pretentious. “Who says malfeasance when you’re sitting around talking about baseball?”

Naturally, I argued my case because who wants to admit to being pretentious? But he was right; I was trying to impress the new neighbors. Do you ever use high-falutin’ words, thinking you’ll impress your readers? Because chances are good, it won’t impress but intimidate. And just like that, you’ve lost a reader.

Word choice is also an important factor when considering the age of your audience. That doesn’t mean that a writer must always use simple words for children or challenging words for adult readers. There is an expectation that the vocabulary will be age-appropriate, and sometimes that means adding context clues for the reader.

Specific vocabulary can also be a great way to develop a character. Take, for instance, the know-it-all kid. Rather than tell readers that he’s a know-it-all, show us with his use of adult vocabulary. Add a layer of comic relief with a character whose running gag is spewing malapropisms.

Oh, how I love a good malapropism. Mister Man was always throwing in the trowel, the dishcloth, or the top. I don’t think he ever actually threw in the towel. However, he steadfastly claimed through all those years to know the word “malfeasance.”

Honestly, I think he looked it up.

(How about you, dear writers? Got a favorite word? I’d love to hear it—and bonus points if I have to look it up!)

~Cathy C. Hall

7 comments:

Marcia Peterson said...

Hi Cathy, this is me as well: "As one who reads constantly, there’s rarely a day that goes by that I don’t look up a word." I read the dictionary for fun as a kid! These days, I mainly read on my Kindle and I love just tapping my finger on any word and having the definition pop up for me.
I don't have a favorite word, as you asked for, but for the last few years I've really liked "gravitas" and have noticed it being used more.

Sioux Roslawski said...

Cathy--I have a favorite word, but I am not sure you want to hear what it is... ;) At least not here.

I do like "schlep" and "willy-nilly."

I have become addicted to the Wordscapes game. Do you know it? If not, you might try it. I have not seen "malfeasance" on there yet, but you never know.

Pat Wahler said...

I love words too, so a thesaurus is my friend. Otherwise, I definitely overuse my favorite words. :-)

You probably already know this, but here's a handy-dandy online resource for word lovers: wordhippo.com

Cathy C. Hall said...

MP, yes, gravitas! You see it everywhere now! I'm not sure if we see a word everywhere because we're somehow attuned to it suddenly or if certain words do become popular due to certain circumstances. For me, it's narrative. It used to be a writer word and now it's ubiquitous!

As I'm a fiction writer, I can use my imagination and come up with your favorite word, Sioux. :-)

I don't know wordscapes, will check it out. Thanks!

And Pat, I don't think I know wordhippo, either. But I will. :-)

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

Beware Wordscape! As a writer/word person, it will suck you in.

Lately, I keep running into "unpack." And, no, no one is talking about luggage. "We need to unpack this concept."

Do you think we could exchange that word for something a tad less trendy?

Angela said...

Mondegreen! That's been one of my favorites for a while because I often mishear lyrics. It all started when I was young with The Go-Gos when I heard their song "Alice a Seal" ("Our Lips are Sealed"). :)

Cathy C. Hall said...

Hahahaha! So true, Sue. And Ang, I have to look up mondegreen every single time I see it. Probably because I'm the queen of that and refuse to accept it (or the word). :-)

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