Monday, October 3, 2011


E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "What is the best way for a writer to improve his/her vocabulary?"
In all likelihood, this is a question that haunts every serious apprentice writer. It certainly haunted me when I was in my late teens and early twenties and (1) Read books on how to improve one's vocabulary, and (2) flagged words in books, magazine articles, news stories and so forth that I didn't know. But that approach to improving one's word power, sad to say, is haphazard. And, as we all know, words are the most fundamental tool a writer has at his or her disposal. Sartre once wrote that "Every sentence is a risk." Well might he have added that, "Every word is a risk," for in what we write precision in word choice is of paramount importance.

 In general, Americans use about 20,000 words in their everyday discourse. But we know and recognize far more of the more than one million words in the English language. Scholars who have devoted themselves to this arcane research, and keep track of this sort of thing, report that Victor Hugo used 15,000 different words in his works, Shakespeare 12,000, and John Milton 9,000. I recall once reading a provocative, challenging statement that said in the 19th century scholars typically read new editions of a dictionary to determine what new words had been officially added to the language, and which ones had fallen by the wayside. And Malcolm X passed his time in prison reading the dictionary.
 These matters kept tugging at me until in 1973 they reached a tipping point. I was at dinner one evening at the farmhouse of John and Joan Gardner in southern Illinois. I made a comment about how much I was enjoying the poetic and archaic words John had used in his book-length epic poem, Jason and Medeia, many of which I had not encountered before. Joan replied that those words were there because she'd teased John about not having enough "big words" in his books. So John, with his magnifying glass in hand, went through every word in The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary before revising his update of the classic story. We had a good laugh about this, but her anecdote haunted me for days. I thought that if so many writers and scholars had gone to such trouble in being systematic about their word study, and now JG too, then what was my excuse? So the next year when I was in the doctoral program in philosophy at Stony Brook, I did the same with the 2,129-page Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary, which was a Christmas gift from my parents. It took me five months to plough through it, page after page for an hour every evening, night after night, as I developed for my own use a personal lexicon tailored specifically to my particular needs as a writer.
 All that was long ago, but I've often wanted to repeat this exercise. What a lover of words and their beauty discovers after doing this chore (which soon ceases to be a chore and becomes a fascinating meditation on etymology, and on life itself in all its permutations) is that there is literally a word for every object, material or immaterial, every relation, and every process that human beings have experienced. Because that is what words are: the crystallization in language of thousands of years of experience across numerous cultures and civilizations, each word being the almost tangible flesh in which thought is tabernacled. To quote Sartre again: "The word is the Other," for it embodies the full spectrum of experiences, sensations, thoughts, and feelings in all their kaleidoscopic shades and hues that our species has lived through and recorded. The dictionary is our transcript for all of that.
 So my study is filled with dictionaries. The Oxford (with its included magnifying glass), of course. Seven dictionaries for Sanskrit, and two for Pali. One for French (my required graduate school language), and one for German. And 19 others devoted to scrumptuous poetic and archaic words, to British English, famous quotations, slang, American and world literature, Latin quotes, Indian philosophy, foreign words in general, terms for building and architecture, on the Bible (my wife has her own separate, well-stocked library of reference material on that subject), and other subjects. As with my Webster's in 1973, I've often sat down and gone through every page of some of these dictionaries (lately, the ones for Sanskrit), taking notes for building vocabulary. (For Sanskrit I have stacks of flashcards in Devanagari script for quick review.) In my experience there simply has been no other way to methodically and thoroughly acquire the general and technical words I require for the diverse subjects I'm called upon to write about.

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