Love of Lexicon,
By Lori L.
Perhaps it goes
without saying that writers love words. Everything we write is
constructed with words, which are the building blocks of our
compositions. Particularly as we edit and revise, these building
blocks need to be carefully shaped into as perfect a fit as
possible, so usage, syntax, and diction should be on our minds as we
put pen to page or fingers to keyboard. It follows that access to
definitions and to a variety of alternative word choices is critical
for all kinds of written communication. A current dictionary and a
thesaurus are as important to a writer as building materials and a
toolkit are to a carpenter.
Oddly enough, I’ve learned that an unusual number of wordsmiths
spend little or no time using a dictionary or thesaurus. Consider
this: the words you use in your writing are what create your own
specific style, your tone, your unique voice. Why sound like
everyone else? With thousands of words to pick from, you can fashion
poetry and prose that is different from the writing of anyone else
on the planet. Why would anyone disregard using the tools to achieve
Do you have a dictionary? If not, get thee to a bookstore! If you
do have one you generally consult, take a look at it. What is the
copyright date? If it is more than five years old, I urge you to
replace it. Every year, hundreds of new words and phrases come into
the English language, and many existing words take on expanded
meanings. If you’re using a dictionary from college or relying on
the old family model (circa 1975!), then thousands of words are
I loved my old college Merriam Webster, a well-used volume that
came as a gift when I graduated from high school (back in the Dark
Ages). When I got serious about writing, I realized I needed to
upgrade. The old book, 960 pages with 70,000 definitions, doesn’t
begin to compare with the newer, Encarta World English version,
2,078 pages with over 100,000 entries comprising some 3.5 million
definitions, 3,000 black-and-white illustrations, and 10,000
biographical and geographical entries. The newer volume is
significantly larger, but it is so much more complete.
It’s a joy to look up any word in the new volume—and a relief to
find newer words there. Your dictionary should be current,
particularly because the world of words changes so rapidly.
Technology, sports, television, advertising, and contact with people
in other countries add words and phrases at a fast rate. For
instance, my old volume does not contain words and abbreviations
such as feng shui, minivan, blog, crank (the drug definition, that
is), iPod, TiVo, and ABS. The newer version does. As a writer, you
should have a recent resource, with the most up-to-date and accurate
You may receive a dictionary CD program with purchase of a
computer, or you can buy various software programs. Some people are
satisfied with an online subscription to Merriam-Webster or American
Heritage or some other online resource. For only $15-25 per year,
these can be very helpful. But what if you’re not at your computer
and need to look up words? What if you’re writing longhand on a trip
or snuggled up in your recliner? If you want to have the most
current database at your fingertips, then an online subscription is
a good idea, but for the same price you could also buy a new
dictionary yearly (and pass on your old volumes to others who aren’t
as picky or thorough as you). I’m partial to having the actual book
sitting in my lap where I can page through it, smell the ink, and
enjoy the tactile experience of leafing through it.
Spend time with your dictionary. I find it helpful to read words
randomly. Savor definitions. Let one word’s definition lead you to
another word that leads you to another. Open to any page, point at a
word, and free write about it for ten minutes. See what you come up
with. Revel in the sound of words and phrases. Play with words. They
generate ideas and stimulate your imagination.
Thesauruses (or Thesauri) and
The word thesaurus comes from the Greek word storehouse
and from the Latin word for treasury. A thesaurus
is a treasury far more valuable than many writers realize.
Speculative/fantasy novelist Neil Gaiman once wrote:
"You can take for granted that people know more or less what a
street, a shop, a beach, a sky, an oak tree look like. Tell them
what makes this one different."
This is some of the best advice a writer has ever given, and
using a good synonym finder can help you reach Gaiman’s goal.
Details, accurate and varied, are part of what makes a story or
novel memorable and unique. Why have your character walk down
a street when he can stride, pace, tread, hoof it, amble, slog,
trudge, wobble, waddle, plod, tiptoe, troop, stroll, saunter, hike,
tramp, or meander? Why have your character brandish an ordinary
gun when it could be a pistol, revolver, sidearm, rifle,
carbine, shotgun, machine gun, derringer, Glock, Colt, Saturday
night special, or a piece? Why have a bird merely sing when
it could trill, warble, lilt, chirp, serenade, or titter?
Using colorful and interesting words not only allows you to vary
your word choice and break up the reader’s monotony, but also helps
you avoid overuse of adverbs. Instead of walked slowly, try
slogged or trudged; instead of sang in a warbling manner, why
not use trilled or warbled? The writing is more economical, the
prose sharper, and the image truer to what you mean.
A thesaurus or a synonym finder is a wonderful resource for
expanding your word usage. Do you tend to overuse words like big,
small, little, young, old, light, or dark? Go to the resource book
and find replacement adjectives. Do the same for overused nouns and
verbs. You will be surprised and delighted by the array of
The more you understand words and their uses and meanings, the
more effectively you will write. Do you know the history of English,
which remains the most versatile and adaptive of languages? If not,
you might want to pick up McCrum, Cran, & McNeil’s The
History of English or Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue:
English and How It Got That Way. Are you familiar with the major
sources of slang and clichés? You can learn more in Partridge’s
Concise Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English.
Rawson’s Dictionary of Euphemisms and Other Doubletalk is
also fascinating reading. There are books about regional dialects.
You can find out about the lexicon of various activities or
professions—everything from archery to zookeeping or law, medicine,
police work, and more. Many books are available about etymology,
which is the history and evolution of individual words (not to be
confused with entomology, the study of bugs).
Whether you choose a dictionary from Merriam-Webster, Random
House, New Oxford, Encarta, American Heritage, or any other, you can
expand your knowledge of language, and I urge you to get a new
dictionary and work at it.
The same goes for thesauruses and synonym finders. There are many
good resources in that realm, but in particular, I would recommend
Roget's 21st Century Thesaurus: Updated & Expanded 2nd
Twenty-First Century Synonym and Antonym Finder
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms
Roget's Thesaurus of Phrases
I confess that my favorite synonym finder is J.I. Rodale’s The
Synonym Finder, which is fairly old. Still, an older
thesaurus is not as big a deal as an old dictionary, and the Rodale
book is the one I use while I am writing first drafts.
I hope I have inspired you to acquire a new dictionary and start
using it. And if you don’t have a synonym finder, try one. For
twenty bucks or less, you can add this valuable tool to your
resource kit and enhance your word use. Or increase your word use .
. . or develop . . . or expand . . . or stretch . . . or augment . .
. or—well, you get the idea.
Addendum by Nann: Because of physical constraints, I write
ONLY by computer. MSWord has a varied thesaurus, and I make use of a
number of comprehensive dictionaries that are available online. But
I also keep my updated "paper" dictionary handy as well as the
newest versions of both the Chicago Manual of Style and
The Gregg Reference Manual. Sometimes I choose a word from a
dictionary definition and bounce it around MSWord’s thesaurus,
similar to Lori’s suggestions about playing with words. One caveat,
if I may: Don’t choose a more complex word just for its own sake.
Make sure it says precisely what you mean. Happy hunting!
© 2004 Lori L. Lake
untitled book about novel writing, a work in progress.
distribution or copying without the express permission of the
author. Lori can be reached at Lori@LoriLLake.com and
welcomes questions and comments.