Nearly 10 years ago -- back in the Jurassic era of the Internet -- when I founded Wordsmith.org as a way to share my love of words with others, I had no idea of how much this place would grow. We now have a vibrant online community of 500,000 wordlovers in more than 200 countries. I feel gratified to be part of such a worldwide community of people who enjoy language and words. It's not surprising that a good number of these wordlovers are writers, poets, novelists, and editors.
The tremendous interest in words is a reminder of their power and beauty, and a sign of how deeply they touch all of us. It's a testament to the universality of words and language. My daily newsletter A.Word.A.Day explores this magic of words.
The best part of running this community is hearing from the readers, many of whom are writers themselves. A prison literacy instructor told me that she used the words from my daily newsletter in classes for her prison inmates. In the beginning the inmates resisted, "We don't need no stinking words." But she persisted, and after just a few weeks, they were hooked. If she missed announcing the word one day, they would ask her, "So what is the word for the day?"
That shows the power of words. No matter what profession we are in or what we do, words touch all of us. Words are just like air: they are all around us, even though we can't see them - and they are just as essential.
That literacy instructor wrote again a few months later to share an incident. The word of the day was "misanthrope". She told the inmates that it means someone who hated mankind and asked if they knew anyone who fitted the definition. Several hands went up. "Prison guards!" they said in unison.
Once in a while my daily newsletter gets delayed and I receive mail from readers telling me they are having withdrawal symptoms. What is it about words that gets us so addicted? All words have biographies. We call them etymologies. These are fascinating stories. Once you discover them, it's easy to fall in love with words. For example, the word "pedigree" came from French "pie de grue" (literally, the foot of a crane) because the lines of descent on a genealogical chart often look like one.
It's hard to describe how I find words. It's better to say that words find me. When one is so much immersed in them, day and night, words come in dreams, while driving, taking a shower or going for a walk. A better way to put it would be that I find words the same way a composer finds a tune or a poet finds a poem.
Whether it's a road sign or a banner in a store, I look for interesting patterns. And there are many. Finding words that have all the vowels in them (facetious, abstemious, arsenious, etc.), words that can be typed with one hand (abstract, reverberate) or words that form other words when beheaded (testate -> estate, orotund -> rotund). I'm a lifelong student of the English language. I learn every day from everyone I come across.
Often I receive letters asking why someone would want to learn all those unusual words. They're afraid they'll come across as pretentious for using big, unknown words. "Well, why should I put 'fancy words' in my essay/story/article when a) many of my readers won't know them, and b) a big theme in writing instruction, thanks to the E.B. White school of thought, is to keep your prose simple and direct?" the question goes.
I consider having a large vocabulary akin to an artist carrying a large palette. You don't have to use all the colors in a single painting. But it helps to have just the right shade when you need it to bring out a nuance. A right word works the same way, helping you to portray a scene, a character, or a situation just as you've pictured it in your mind. For an illustration of this, consider the story Monkey's Paw by W.W. Jacobs. He has used many words that are not common. But each word helps to create the tone of the story, set the mood, build the atmosphere, and illustrate the characters' sense of angor. Each word adds to the precision. Here is how the author describes the visitor, a retired Sergeant-Major Morris:
Of course, once in a while, it doesn't hurt to be a bit subversive and throw in an unusual word just for the fun of it. Words are the currency of human discourse. In writing they are tools of our business. So why not mix a little pleasure with business?
Drop me a line at (garg at wordsmith.org). I'd love to hear from you.