I have a particular challenge of writing in a language that I learned about 16 years ago, and expanding my vocabulary is on the forefront of it, painfully so. I would love to hear your ideas and tricks on growing it faster, especially those of you who write multilingually. Over the 3 years that I've been writing full-time, I have devised system after system after system to help me. They all collapsed shortly after I started them, but this one stuck and I wanted to share it with you because it might give you a little boost if you're struggling as I do.
Words are our tools. No mater which way you spin it, the breadth of linguistic fluidity shows up in writing time and again. It might look simple at first, but it's the breathing fabric underneath that makes it sound different, rich, fresh, enthralling. Same concepts, same tired expressions can be said so many different ways, it's astounding.
There aren't many things we do in life. It's pretty boring, actually. We have one primal instinct, to survive. Out of that we have two main basic emotions: love and fear. From this stems everything else. Love is deeply rooted in our preprogramming to leave as many little Joes and Marys on this planet as we can to ensure them happily leaving plenty of Joes and Marys in their turn. To put it simpler, it's our sex drive. The other one is fear. Fear saves us from that predator who wants us for breakfast. It's from fear that we have hatred and rage and envy and a whole bouquet of those. They are designed to ward the motherfucker off, to keep us safe, so we can make more Joes and Marys.
But oh how do we love nuances. How smart did we get. We have recognized shades and shades of these, and have developed a truckload, no, a rocketload of words for them.
I have been studying these puppies like mad, both abstract concepts and literal physical representations. Like grief, for instance, and the crying that comes with it. The simple way of describing someone crying was at first reduced to "she started crying." Later I added, "tears fell down her cheeks" and "her eyes brimmed with water." Now I can flaunt "her entire face folded into a pool" or "the consternation squeezed her eyes and her vision doubled." Or whatever. I'm going light here, not mentioning phrase-concepts like "soul-penetrating despondency" or "tumefaction of her woe" or something.
BUT I AM STILL NOT SATISFIED WITH MY VOCABULARY.
So here is what has recently seemed to work like a charm.
I started stealing words from other books.
Of course, there is no such thing as stealing words. They are not copyrighted. What I mean by it is, every night when I read, expressions with a new word that caught my eye I type into my phone into a little file called NEW WORDS. I type them in a jumble, not worried about order. And every morning, before I start writing, I open up that file and copy its contents into a file called NEW WORDS on my laptop. And here is what I do next.
- I first translate each word in Google translate to see what it means in Russian. I then type it into a particular category in the file (together with the phrase it was used in). I have eleven categories so far. They are ACTION VERBS and REACTIONS and MOODS, and I even have one called CLOTHES and one called COLORS for any unusual words to fit there.
- Next I read the entire file and delete expressions (and those not-so-new words anymore with them) that I have memorized and can recall the meaning of or have used in my writing.
- Next I mix them up. There is no software for this, so I do it by hand. I cut every second, fourth, and sixth row of every category, move them to the bottom of that category, and then I cut it half all of it and switch the halves around (math geeks, suggest a better sequence of steps if you think of one). Essentially, I'm mixing up the order so that the next morning when I read them, they sound fresh and new and jump out at me in their unusual combinations.
And you know what I have noticed?
THE DAMN WORDS GET STUCK IN MY HEAD.
I have significantly improved their staying power with this method. When I write and get stumped at something I have repeated a thousand times, like the word "walk," instead of going to a thesaurus I flip open my little file and scan for words to see what jumps out. Like "amble" or "prance" or "swagger" or "stomp" or whatever.
Lately, courtesy of Edward Morbius who pointed me to it, I have added a new find and am also looking up the history of each word in this nifty Etymology tool. Today, for example, I have learned that the lovely word inauguration actually comes from Latin inaugurationem which in turn comes from past participle stem of inaugurare "take omens from the flight of birds" which is comprised of augur = Latin avis for birds (because flights of birds, their singing, feeding them, along with entrails from bird sacrifices, were important objects of divination) + garrire "to talk." So inauguration is really foretelling good omens as glimpsed from flights of birds. Wow. Suddenly a presidential speech has a whole new meaning, doesn't it? Suddenly you can use it in dialogue and say instead of "he foretold," "he delivered an inauguration" by making a hidden joke and knowing exactly what you meant to say.
This is what's bugging me. I see stories in my head with such clarity, such precision, and yet my language skills don't match it. Yet. Hence this drive to expand my vocabulary.
So. Your turn. Got some tricks up your sleeve? Share. Thank you, darlings. I love you, as always.