Monday, April 8, 2013

Wordcraft --- May I have a word?

Who else out there likes Pinterest? Yeah, at first I was determined to consider it a waste of time. Then it turned out to be the perfect place to use all the pictures and images garnered for blog posts. Then -- well, it took on a life of its own.

After awhile, I started updating my cyberspace boards so their faces -- the five images that appear before a board is opened -- reflect a single theme -- like having a paragraph within each board’s overall theme. For instance, if the board’s theme is “kittens,” the face could consist of pictures of spotted kittens. With the most adorable, of course, as the biggest image -- the cover -- of the board’s face.

Admittedly, I don’t post pictures of kittens. But I enjoyed arranging a board about books so that each image on the front was a volume by one of my favorite authors -- Spanish thriller writer Arturo Perez-Reverte, if you’re interested. Or books about a particular region or time or subject.

Consider yourself warned -- this post is the verbal equivalent of a Pinterest board. And it’s a board about one of my favorite subjects. Words.

And not just written words. Or English words. Or words in a living language. All of which you can determine from the image with this blog of a few of the dictionaries pulled from my home bookshelves.

I have a couple of English language dictionaries, although for ordinary purposes, I often use online dictionaries. For writing historical fiction, I especially like online dictionaries that date word usage, so I can tell whether a word was current for the time period.

A tricky thing about using most dictionaries is that you have to know, at least roughly, how to spell a word before you can actually look it up. A visual dictionary, such as Merriam-Webster’s Compact Visual Dictionary helps. So even if I don’t know what letter a words starts with, but at least that it’s part of a shoe or a ship, I can look it up.

Or if you know what a word means, there’s A Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms, by Joseph Devlin, a list of words with similar meanings, as well as opposite meanings. I also have an ancient pocket edition of the obsessive Roget’s Thesaurus, although its entries can smell, well, bookish.

Although I consider it best usage for an English-speaking writer not to pepper her work with non-English phrases, sometimes a few words are needed, if only to convey that characters may not actually be speaking English. Living in Texas, I sometimes find even normally English-speaking characters using a hybrid version of English and Spanish, locally called Tex-Mex. For this, I sometimes have to supplement long-ago high school Spanish with a trusty dictionary.

On the rare occasions a character needs to use another language -- well, you’ve got some examples. Online translation services can help with stuff like gender and tense but they vary in quality, as I learned all too well while answering translated emails during one of my previous jobs.

Foreign language dictionaries, especially of phrases, can also be less than idiomatic. Sometimes you can use this slightly “off” feeling to convey that a character is trying to speak a language that isn’t native to him. If that’s not what you’re aiming for, check if at all possible with an experienced, preferably native speaker.

And although I still haven’t written an Elvish-speaking character to justify Ruth S. Noel’s The Languages of Tolkien’s Middle-earth, in the end, I can’t resist leaving you with a last good quetta.*

*“word” in the high Elvish language Quenya


  1. Thanks for the resources, Melissa. I use Roget's online thesaurus, a lot. Especially when I'm writing poetry.

    I haven't tried Pinterest. It sounds like fun, but I'm afraid of taking on another distraction. You know that I've only just got around to posting on Facebook!

  2. Good point about Roget's -- I didn't think about it being useful for poetry. I saw your Facebook post, and yeah, we do have to limit our social media or we'll end up not doing anything else!