Confessions of a Word Addict

by Anu Garg
Writer Magazine, Dec 2003

Nearly 10 years ago -- back in the Jurassic era of the Internet -- when I founded 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.

What Can New Words Do For You?

Unusual words often come handy in breaking a writer's block. Next time you find yourself wondering where to take that story, article, or novel, think about how you can weave a particular word in your writing. Ideas might start flowing again. And your screen might start glowing or ink might start flowing again. Here are a few words you could experiment with in one of those moments:
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.

A Lifetime to a Better Vocabulary

While "X Days to a Better Vocabulary" books are helpful to a certain extent, building a rich vocabulary is a journey of a lifetime. New words enter the language all the time, old words change meaning (a few hundred years ago if you called someone nice, you'd be saying he was stupid!). Here are some practical steps that will help in enriching a verbal palette:

Look it Up

Next time you come across a word that you are less than certain of, try looking it up. And pay special attention to the etymology. Here is an example: we know that liquor often makes one prolix. But once we look into the etymologies of these words, we discover that the connection is even deeper. Both the words "prolix" and "liquor" ultimately derive from the same Latin root liquere (to flow). Once you discover this, the word prolix will not only be unforgettable but also have a fresh, crisp image in your mind that will show in your writing.

Go Electronic

The big-book-is-too-heavy-to-open-it-often is no excuse now. You can simply use the search facility of any online dictionary or thesaurus. In addition, most dictionaries (including the 20 volume Oxford English Dictionary) are available in CD-ROM.

Also, with electronic dictionaries, you can do full-text searches. For example, let's pretend your character trips on some plants with yellow flowers. They don't have to be dandelions. A full-text search on Random House Webster's Unabridged or American Heritage Dictionary for "yellow AND flower" brings out more than 200 such plants.

A Word A Day Keeps the Dictionary Away

Drop by drop an ocean is filled. Learn a new word every day and soon you would have mastered hundreds of new words in just a few months. Many Internet sites offer free services where you can have a new word emailed to you every morning.

The Way to Carnegie Hall

Practice, practice, practice! The same method as the one to get to the Carnegie Hall applies. Whenever you write or speak, consciously try to choose words that you haven't used in the past. This doesn't mean that you have to force words, but don't be afraid to use a word that fits just because it's not heard or read every day.
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:

"...her husband entered the room, followed by a tall burly man, beady of eye and rubicund of visage."

The author's careful selection of words "rubicund of visage" makes it easy for us to picture Sergeant-Major in our mind. Later on our picture is confirmed when we learn of the visitor's affinity fo liquor. And finally it's all summed nicely in:
"All of which did not prevent her from ... referring somewhat shortly to retired sergeant-majors of bibulous habits."

Uncommon words? For sure! But as these examples show, the test to see if a word is right one to use is not whether it is known by 99% of the readers. Rather it is whether something would be lost if we replace it by another word.

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 I'd love to hear from you.