Monday, October 26, 2009

Feet that "whisper," and other interesting word usages

Like all writers, I love discovering slightly fresh uses for words. Recently I ran across the following passage in The Boys from Brazil by Ira Levin, which describes a waitress in traditional dress:

"Her white-mittened feet whispered over the tatami."

I think "white-mittened" and the verb "whispered" in this sentence perfectly convey the woman's movements, creating an effect.

In my own writing I always have to root out what I call "garden variety" words, including --gasp--cliches. Whenever a particularly interesting word strikes my fancy, I jot it down in a writing file, and keep the file updated. Sometimes the word itself isn't that unusual, but can seem fresh when used in a slightly different way.

When I hit upon a goodish-sounding word that suits my purpose, unfortunately I have a tendency to overuse it. For example, in one manuscript I discovered that I kept using the verb "freshened." It became my verb du jour--a breeze would freshen a flag, stuff was freshening all over the place. I had to go back and rework them all. I also repeat certain words in my everyday speech. My sister recently pointed out that I'd started using the word "draconian" a lot. Things weren't simply bad anymore--suddenly, everything had become draconian.

Are you the type of writer who systematically collects words that you find interesting, or do you rely on brainstorming and free flow? Do you have any interesting new sources for words?


  1. Good question, Kathryn. Ray Bradbury advocates reading some poetry every day, to get the sound of words in your head. Then the trick is to get the words down on the page naturally, so the reader isn't brought up short, or has to constantly reach for a dictionary.

  2. I'm old school; a thesaurus is still my word finder of choice. My concession to the 21st Century is using the online version.

    I do fall prey to the word du jour curse. I can pick up a word early in the day's writing and use it six times in two pages if I'm not careful. This sometimes requires draconian measures to root them all out in subsequent drafts.

  3. Dana, lol, it does take draconian measures to keep freshening our personal dictionaries! Jim, I like the suggestion to read poetry. I'm going to try that today, thanks!

  4. I'm a sucker for getting drawn into words - I have a dictionary that references words/refs used by John Milton in his poetry. As a teenager I went on a bender looking up all these classical allusions and words - but they don't naturally flow into my work (damn!) though I think they are all pretty cool. I also love dialect and adore many Lancashire-isms (Lanky speak) but my agent wouldn't let me keep most of them (because no one outside Lancashire knows what words like 'moidering' means...)

  5. Moidering? Hey, I know what dat is, an' I ain't from no Lancaster or whatevva. Moidering's what dey do to guys who t'ink dey c'n get away wit' shit. An' den get ridda da body over in Joisey.

  6. Moider's a new one on me, Clare, but now that I looked it up, I love it! (Even its NY-alt definition!)

  7. My problem is that I forget the perfect word... when it's right on the tip of my mind. I also, like Jack Aubrey, have a fondness for idioms - paired with a tendency to mix them up.

    I think reading high-quality books of any genre is a good way to widen vocabulary.