I’ve been reading the dictionary this week.
Well, a dictionary: Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.
My motivation comes from Priscilla Long’s recommendation in The Writer’s Portable Mentor to gather words. She believes that for writers, collecting words is a ‘definite, specific, regular habit.’ She describes how creating a lexicon and setting word traps were a turning point for her writing, gradually opening a doorway into a topic that had seemed opaque. Words are the medium and currency of writing. Like an artist mixing colours to find the right hues, or a composer drawing on timbres of different instruments, I aim to be a spendthrift with words.
Brewer’s dictionary seemed a good place to start. Here are some of my finds:
- Famous last words (possibly apocryphal):
Ludwig Van Beethoven – ‘I shall hear in heaven.’
Jane Austen – When asked what she required: ‘Nothing but death.’
Stonewall Jackson – ‘Let us pass over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees.’
- Have you heard of Merope? She was one of the Pleiades, the seven daughters of Atlas. In astronomy, the Pleiades is a constellation of seven stars. Six of the stars are visible to the naked eye. The seventh, Merope, is dimmer than the rest. The reason she doesn’t shine like her sisters? She married a mortal.
- Nouns of assemblage: a skulk of foxes, a wing of plovers, a kindle of kittens, a bench of bishops, a peal of bells, a paddling of ducks, a suit of sails, a clutch of eggs, a murmuration of starlings, an exaltation of larks.
- Nouns of multitudes from Dame Juliana Berners in the Booke of St Albans (1486): a hoost of men, a bevy of ladyes, a flyghte of doves, a watche of nyghtyngales, a pontificalitye of prestys, and a superfluyte of nonnes.
- A Scottish saying – ‘Many a mickle makes a muckle’, or ‘A wheen o’mickles mak’s a muckle’ , where mickle means ‘little’ and muckle ‘much.’
So here’s a writing idea: if stuck, stockpile words. Any words, any order. Record words you like, or don’t like, names of places you’ve been, places you’d like to go. Search for them from memories, maps, and dictionaries, pilfer them from the interesting conversation two tables down at a café. They may just start assembling themselves. As Priscilla Long points out, ‘It is astonishing how much language itself holds, with no meanings added by the writer, no interpretations, no sentences, no writing.’
About a week ago, I found my son writing a long list of words in a notebook. When I asked him, he explained it was a word bank for his literacy assignment. He said he might use the words later. When he showed me his story, a lot of those words appeared in his work. I asked him if he thought the word bank was helpful. His response:
‘Yeah. It was good. But I don’t think the same thing would work for maths.’