Why Dictionaries Matter: Or, How To Make David Foster Wallace Smile

I’m far from the most prolific writer, travel or otherwise, that ever scribbled nonsense in a journal. Sure, I’ve blogged a lot, but that’s not what I call composition. And in the course of writing a few stories, I’ve worked with a handful of editors. Some of them have been fantastic and others have been terrible. My favorite editor was at the San Antonio Express-News. She never worked against me; and she was the kind of editor that made me sound much smarter than I actually am, working with me to hone and tighten up my prose. (My least favorite, you ask? I’m not ready to sever my relationship with that particular publication just yet so I’ll keep it to myself. The relationship is ongoing and not very edifying—for either of us.)

One thing that has always irked me to no end about almost every single editor I’ve ever worked with is a preternatural fear of any word that isn’t on a tenth grade high school English test. I’m not solely talking about the big Latinate or Greek multi-syllabic words—although those too at times—but good old active, descriptive words that are unusual, short and a tonic against the ordinary. Why not expand people’s vocabulary with a well placed unusual word on occasion? I, for one, take to the dictionary frequently. Here’s a sample of words I’ve looked up in the last eight weeks:

carunculated: like a toad, pock-marked

ebullition: the act or process of boiling up

shinnery: low, second growth oak brush

charked: to convert into charcoal

thanatoptic: relating to the study of death

soughed: to make a rustling sound

stridulous: characterized by making a shrill sound

vulpine: of or resembling a fox

stipple: to paint by means of dots or small strokes

murrain: a plague or pestilence

sere: being dried and withered

feldspar: a group of minerals consisting of aluminum silicate crystals

asseverate: to declare earnestly or solemnly

gelid: very icy or cold

begammoned: to have been deceived. (The root, to gammon, obviously comes from backgammon and has many different and wonderful permutations.)

analepsis: recovery of strength after an illness

wending: with an object, to pursue or direct; without an object, making one’s way or ambling

puncheon: a tool or instrument for punching holes in fabric or similar materials; a wooden cask measurement; a plank road

effictio: a verbal depiction of someone’s body, often from head to toe

ensorcelled: to become bewitched

heliotrope: reddish lavender

metaphrastic: having the quality of a translated literary work

Every single one of those words are delightful and would simply be awesome if used in the right context.

We all know this and it’s a cliche (as a side note: did you know a cliche was a common phrase in French that was given it’s own wooden cut out in the printing process so the type-setter wouldn’t have to arrange the letters over and over again? See! That’s what you learn in a dictionary!), but it’s no less true for it: words are important. They are the little conveyances we utter every second of every day in an attempt to give the raw material of thought, those ineffable spinning and caroming neurons, meaning and more importantly: life. I bring all this up because it’s good to know that I find myself in excellent company in my list making of unknown words. A good portion of the words David Foster Wallace lists here I know, but a good portion I don’t and should know.

The only reason I know such words is that I take the time to a.) look them up when I do not know them and then b.) write them down in my journal, definition included and finally c.) write them down in a sentence that day all Grammar school-like.

Sure, I understand that’s a lot of effort to ask from a non-writer. But really, why  use a dictionary? For starters, you might learn something and stimulate the economy in the process of buying one. Get a big one. And highlight every word you look up. After a few years you’ll be proud of your effort. Not only will  you know a host of new words, but you’ll be able to convey your thoughts, ideas and emotions with a greater facility than you previously had.

As for me I’m simply at a point in life where I’m one-hundred percent willing to go to the mat for a well-placed word that will make a reader reach for the dictionary. There is a reason I use such words—and no, it’s not self-aggrandizement or grandiloquence—it’s precision. It’s also a damn good reason to encourage editors to stop fearing words that are uncommon. Besides, David Foster Wallace will smile down on you from heaven if you do.