According to Roy Peter Clark, author of the book, Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer,
“All of us possess a reading vocabulary as big as a lake but draw from a writing vocabulary as small as a pond. The good news is that the acts of searching and gathering always expand the number of usable words. The writer sees and hears and records. The seeing leads to language.”Search and gather, yes. See, hear and record, by all means.
I also advocate for outright theft.
So how can writers pick language’s pocket? I can think of several time-tested ways:
STEAL FROM THE PEOPLE IN YOUR LIFE
My co-blogger, Susan, introduced me to the word “stupiphany” (not sure where she got it). She even used it in a sentence for me: “I spent 15 minutes trying to unscrew the pump top on the shampoo bottle before I had the stupiphany that it unscrewed in the other direction.”
Ain’t that a great word?
You can steal from family too.
My nephew-in-law occasionally uses a word I adore: "flustrated." Obviously a combination of “frustrated” and “flustered” but doesn’t it just nail that “I’m frustrated and can’t seem to spit anything out” feeling we’ve all had?
I also had the pleasure of getting acquainted with this certain nephew-in-law’s grandmother, Betty. She introduced me to a phrase I hadn’t heard before, although I’ve been told it has been around a long time:
"She doesn’t know siccum."
Betty used it frequently in reference to the people who ran the retirement home where she lived for a time. Betty is gone now, but her phrase lives on in my mind, complete with her disdainful delivery of it.
STEAL FROM OTHER LANGUAGES
I had the great pleasure of learning Bambara, a West African dialect, when I was in the Peace Corps. Bambara is chock full of onomatopoeia—that neat little trick where you form words that fit with what you are naming, like “sizzle” and “plop.”
One of my favorite Bambara words: "fitini." It means small. The Malians would add extra “ni” at the end when they were describing something really small: "fitini-ni-ni-ni."
Even if you don’t speak the language, you get the drift of what they’re saying, right?
Some languages have a knack for creating words that encompass big concepts and are very stealable.
The Japanese language, for instance, has "shinrin-yoku." It means “forest bathing” and speaks to the clarity and relaxed feeling you get when you spend time in the company of trees.
Oh, I could use a little shinrin-yoku right now—thank goodness camping season is here.
Something else from the Japanese I’ll bet we ALL relate to: "tsunboku"—the act of buying a book and leaving it unread, often piled together with other unread books.
Maybe it’s my Welsh heritage that makes me love "hiraeth," a Cymraeg (Welsh) word that doesn’t translate fully into English, but generally describes “a deep longing for home.”
STEAL FROM THE PAST
I'm of the opinion that some words, lost from everyday use, need to be found again. Who knows--we might be just the writers to do it.
Or "squitterers," a word used in the 18th century for grapes. Apparently had to do with the idea that grapes act as a laxative. Quite a sensory word, wouldn’t you agree?
STEAL, STOCKPILE AND SELECT FROM YOUR BOOTY
Stealing words doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll use every one (I have yet to try out "fitini-ni-ni-ni" on anybody here in the U.S.) but that’s not really the point.
It’s more about playing with language, fiddling on a regular basis with the raw material of our literary art.
Simply by stealing and stockpiling vocabulary you ensure that when you are writing and looking for the perfect word, your brain is limber and has plenty to pick from.
So go ahead and pilfer—I promise I won’t squeal.
|Just one of the "tsuboku" in my house|
Resources used in the writing of this post (yes, I stole some language here, I confess):
You English Words—A Book About Them by John Moore.
(Susan Mark bequeathed me this book, printed in 1961. The cover is falling off but I keep it nearby and often find juicy words in it.)
Buzzfeed: 22 Intensely Pleasurable Old Words We Need to Bring Back
Popxo: Meraki & 9 Other Beautiful Words
Buzzfeed: 28 Beautiful Words the English Language Could Steal