Vocabulary building tool: a dictionary the size of a small dog

Vocabulary is a prime tool in every communications tool box. Writers, as a breed, are prone to exhaustive searches for exactly the right words to use in their poetry and prose. I often suffer from this malady, and have recently thought back to the last time I was subject to formal expectations for vocabulary building.

Mrs. Campbell’s fifth grade. Vocabulary was intimately tied to the subject known as Spelling. The very best student in our class, who ultimately served as valedictorian for the Port Townsend High School Class of 1977, was so advanced in her studies she was tasked to create her own, personal list of vocabulary/spelling words. I remember two of her word choices: pajamas and martini. Is it any wonder she went far in life?

During the same era, my sister and I were in the family den, engaged in verbal combat. We zinged each other with the words pig and hog, among others. Mom jumped in to referee (she could have worn a black and white striped jersey in those days and not looked out of place). We were admonished for using the swine-indicative nouns, followed by, “You both have good vocabularies. I’m surprised you couldn’t think of better words to use.”

An excellent point, but I perceive that pig and hog are evergreen selections on the inter-sibling vocabulary list.

When I was dabbling in songwriting and poetry, I often referred to the Essential Songwriter’s Rhyming Dictionary (Kevin M. Mitchell, Alfred Publishing Co., Inc.) to find exactly the right word that- -you guessed it- -also rhymed with another exactly right word. I don’t know if this is typical of all rhyming dictionaries or an idiosyncrasy of such books geared to songwriters, but one of the key words is sperm (affirm, confirm, germ, etc.). I had not used sperm in a song lyric, so I’m not sure how I noticed this particular entry. Nevertheless, it gave me pause.

The New Yorker magazine is an excellent catalyst for vocabulary building. In the October 19, 2015 issue I stumbled over the word adumbrate in an article about Thoreau, written by Kathryn Schultz. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (12th printing of Pocket Book edition, 1976) this means 1. To foreshadow vaguely; to intimate 2. To suggest or disclose partially 3. Shade, obscure. A word, as you can see, that immediately conjures images from Walden. Or not.

If you enjoy newly-made words, try sampling some Facebook posts. While some of these are simply hideous misspellings disguised as new words, a true gem can emerge from time to time. Take, for example, poopstorm. This appeared in a post about the flurry and furor sometimes caused by fake news. At about the same time, I bothered to look up the exact meaning of apocryphal (“writings of dubious authenticity” is the simplest definition). I haven’t used the word combination apocryphal poopstorm in a sentence yet (except for this one), but it’s on my “to do” list.

Speaking of word combinations, this week I experienced a hideously long but ultimately helpful service call with a Dell computer technician. (Yes, my “issue” was resolved; otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading this blog.) In addition to solving a problem that took 6 hours to set right, I acquired the word combination digital fulfillment alert. The approximate meaning: we sold you something.

At age 57 I’ve come to the sad realization that there are many words I don’t know the exact meaning of. To remedy this shortcoming, I’ve decided to plumb the depths of Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary Unabridged Second Edition © 1979 (a volume the size of a small dog and a gift from my very ex in-laws, both of whom I adored). I stubbed my wordsmith’s toe on abattoir (“a building for the slaughtering of cattle; a slaughterhouse”). Is it just me, or have you also noticed that this word rhymes nicely with boudoir (a woman’s private sitting room or dressing room)? Neither of these appear in the Essential Songwriter’s Rhyming Dictionary, so maybe the words are more useful for poets than for songwriters?

Vocabulary: use it or lose it. I say, let’s get out there and do our moms proud! The next time you square off with a sibling, give pig and hog a rest and try porker, swine (animal), glutton, gormandizer, cormorant (gluttony), iron, bloom (metal), self-seeker, timeserver or dog in the manger (selfishness)*. It is oh so important to get the words exactly right.


*The New Roget’s Thesaurus in Dictionary Form, Edited by Norman Lewis © 1964


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