Jul 9, 2014

Stalking the Nearly Extinct Word

by H. Linn Murphy

I have a love affair with words. It's been this way since I was old enough to plead with my mom for yet another fairy story. She told them by the boatload and I was always there at her knee, begging for more, greedy little cuss.

We lived on a small farm in Colorado for most of my growing up years. There were forty five rabbits to feed and water. We also had a flock of chickens (all named by my brother) to feed, water, gather eggs from, and clean up after. We had nine goats (Apropos for a Heidi to have goats.) to feed, water, milk, treat, and clean up after. There were also hunting dogs, a magpie, pheasants, ducks, trout, and a parade of short-lived chinchillas to take care of. Lastly we had an enormous garden and fields of alfalfa to cultivate and later bale and buck.

You'd think that I'd never have time for words. But I made time. I told myself stories, composed songs and poetry, and read every chance I got. My parents bemoaned the fact that I was always off in the fields somewhere cuddling a good book. I had an hour long trip to and from school on the bus. Sometimes I had a good book. Sometimes I read the dictionary. Yeah. I was that geeky.

I loved wrapping my tongue around a new word, tasting it, feeling its creaminess as I played with it in my teeth and filling my mind with a delicate tracery of lives and places and possibilities.

Prestidigitation. Bamboozle. Malfeasance. Rococo. Beneficent. Asinine. Gobbet. Pungent. Astringency. Conflagration. Sylvan. Variegating. Discombobulated.

The right words can add spice to and define the pictures in our mind, filling our heads with blazing sunsets and spinning skyrockets and the planes of a dear one's long lost face.

My father was a teacher. When I didn't know how to spell a word, he'd tell me to look it up in the dictionary. I never understood how that was supposed to happen very well if you couldn't spell it correctly. But a funny thing happened every time I went to find the wretched thing. There were other words--tempting words--opportunistic words waiting like bridesmaids and groomsmen to ease the way down the aisle. Sometimes I'd find the word I was supposed to be looking for only after several minutes of delightful dalliance (the good kind, not the bad) with those other attending words.

With the advent of the computer and Google, these little assignations don't occur with nearly the frequency. Our little pumpkins go straight to the on-line dictionary and voilĂ , presto change-o, there's the word, brought forth naked into the world without its glorious entourage. And that's if they bother to look it up. Way too many people rely, often erroneously, on Spell-check.

When I went to college, I took a class on language. I loved that teacher. I will never ever forget the difference between clamor and clamber. For the first, he had the class scream and yell at the tops of our lungs. For the second, he got down on the floor in his three piece suit and scrambled up onto the table one leg at a time to stand beaming as the class dissolved into laughter. We examined the writings of Marcus Aurelius and Ray Bradbury and Mark Twain and Jane Austen. We teased open sentences and tough-to-crack words. We learned where they originated. That's where my love of the English language gelled into infatuation and then love.

My major was always something to do with art. I graduated with high honors in a double major, neither of them creative writing. But along the way there were always classes in Children's Lit or English or Humanities. What broke it open for me was my senior project for Illustration. I had to write, illustrate, typeset, and bind my own children's book, which I did. The story was tight, the illustrations blazed forth from the page. I've read that book to countless children in several schools as well as to my own. All of them loved it. So when I went to get JOHNNY'S RUTABAGA published and neither publisher wanted it, I choked.

I put the book away for several years. But it lay there under its coating of dust and called piteously to me. More ideas crept up to join in the cacophony of voices. So I began to write. I can see each character in my head, thanking me for giving them a voice and filling their lives with words.

(I still need to find a publisher for Johnny's Rutabaga. My eldest daughter is hounding me to bring that book to the finish line.)

The dilemma is in pleasing the masses with an ever-shrinking stable of broken down hack words, or in finding a way to slip in an incisive word or two. "We had to look that word up. Too many big words." I've heard that one. But when is it time to help our readers stretch just a little bit? If we don't raise these words from the dead, they'll be lost to a lonely, unattended grave, along with new ideas and fresh vistas. It'll be easier to let others control how we think and what we say, and more difficult to illustrate our ideas in a comprehensive way.

Don't let delicious words die. Don't let our once civilized world go down to a ten-word dialog and grunts. Fill the mind's sky with splendid lexicography! Let your pen blaze forth in fanciful fireworks of finesse and filigree. Celebrate words!


  1. Celebrate words, indeed! Thank you, Heidi. Huzzah!

  2. Amen Heidi. I didn't live on a farm or have a teacher dad, but he would use a big word deliberately then tell me to look it up. And yes I read the dictionary too. Too bad kids today kinda lose that. But there are apps for words like that.

  3. Lovely, lovely words! Awesome post, Heidi! My daughter and son-in-law are homesteading and homeschooling their 6 children. I can't wait to share this post with them. hugs~

  4. Yay! A kindred spirit :) I agree with every word. I never read a book that I didn't have a dictionary next to me. I loved learning new words. I actually read the dictionary and incorporated a new word into my vocabulary every week. The word "asenine" in your story reminded me. I started using it and the next thing I knew the word went through my high school and everyone was using it. Perhaps not such a great word to be proud of, though. I like your use if color, too. Until I discovered calligraphy in 1980, I never felt like an artist. I could combines love of art and illustration with the written word. A wordsmith's dream.


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