Watch Your Language!

Kate Flora here, hoping I’ll write something today that will interest you. I had grand plans to continue my “little black book” series with a post about structure, but I was behind on my homework, it’s nearly time to start dinner, my to-list has run off the page, and the wind is howling around the house like it’s looking for a way in.

It is the howling wind that inspired this post. When my boys were young, we used to have a sheet of yellow lined paper tacked to the refrigerator that read: Don’t Call Your Brother an Idiot. Beneath that was a long list of words, headed by: Instead, call him ….followed by interesting, parentally-approved words.

The boys grew up and became more civil, but the family fascination with words never went away. One of my most cherished gifts from my mother is a copy of Rodale’s Synonym Finder. It’s a fabulous book to get lost in. A perfect source for procrastination. Over the years, it has led to many lists, some of which have also made their way to the refrigerator. And lists have given way to magnetic poetry.

For a while, writing my Thea Kozak mysteries, my readers sometimes complained that I let Thea get into too much danger and get too many stitches, while I kept notebooks with words for pain and violence, for explosions and gunshots, and the sounds that a car makes when it’s settling after a crash.

My advice for writing sex scenes has always been: put in every sense and sound and smell. Throw in the kitchen sink. Go totally over the top. Then take 95% of it out.

But I’m from New England, so we are not going to talk about sex and violence. Instead, we will talk about winter words. I think we’ve all read that the Eskimo have 250 words for snow. Well, I don’t, but sometimes, as my mother noted in her “ghost” post earlier this week, we writers want richer, more descriptive, or punchy  words for what we’re trying to describe. One of the lists that lived on the refrigerator for years was a list of wintery words.

First on that list was brumal. As defined in my trusty American Heritage Dictionary, a friendly tome that has lived next to the dining room table for easy access for decades, brumal means: of, relating to, or occurring in winter. So that’s a brumal wind flailing around out there. As as it winds its way around the house, it might spout, blast, roar, trumpet, huff or puff. It might whirl, twirl, or spin as it drives the clouds of snow before it.

I look up ice, and I get frost, hoarfrost, rime, sleet, hail, glaze. Ice cold has a lovely series of synonyms: freezing, frigid, algid, gelid, rimy, frosty, wintry, brumal, arctic, glacial, polar, hyperborean, hyperboreal, Siberian, bleak, bitter, raw, cutting, stinging, sharp, brisk, zippy, snappy. Icy adds to that list frore, sleety, glassy, slippery, and slick. Have you ever used the word frore? Hyperboreal? Gelid? They are lovely on the tongue, and only risk of using them is having a reader come to a complete stop and grab a dictionary.

One of the beauties of using a dictionary (Yes, Virginia, one of those bound things with pages and a spine) is reading up or down the page, so I find, right under brumal, the word brume, which is a word for fog or mist. It immediately calls to mind a sentence like: Brume rose like little eels from the cold cement. And the word cold leads, in its turn, to such a lovely and mind-stimulating series of definitions:

cold: lacking emotion. Having no appeal to the senses or feelings. Not affectionate or friendly. Devoid of sexual desire. Having lost all freshness or vividness through the passage of time. (dogs attempting to catch a cold scent) Dead (he was cold in his grave) Marked by unqualified certainty. So intense as to be almost uncontrollable, as in a cold fury. To an unqualified degree, as in cold sober. Without advance preparation, as in walked in cold and got the job.

This is followed–the beauty of the dictionary again–by all those lovely cold words: cold-blooded, cold-cocked, cold comfort, cold fish, cold eyed, cold hearted and cold shoulder. It is almost time to make dinner, and I would gladly settle for a cold collation, if someone else would put it out.

Outside, as the sun sets and the day grays out into evening, the temperature drops. It is cold outside, and inside, I am warmed by the amazing possibilities of words.

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2 Responses to Watch Your Language!

  1. Deanna says:

    I just found a new word: eggcorn

    noun: An erroneous alteration of a word or phrase, by replacing an original word with a similar sounding word, such that the new word or phrase also makes a kind of sense.
    For example: “ex-patriot” instead of “expatriate” and “mating name” instead of “maiden name”.
    Fun! Dee

  2. John Clark says:

    Remember the famous ‘kitchen sink’ substitution. Sadly kids these days are too lazy or uninterested to attempt something like that for more than a few hours, let alone a week. I remember two of mom’s favorites that caused plenty of blank looks. there was terpsichorean ecdysiast and callipygian cleft. I wonder how many realize that the latter follows the former (so to speak) wherever they go. I’m off for some flagrant philately with an avowed thespian. Great and nostalgic post.

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