I love knowing the names of things. I appreciate knowing, for example, that the birds that shriek and wheel over Chicago supermarket parking lots are ring-billed gulls and the chittering birds in the enormous dry shrub outside the elementary school where I teach are house sparrows—which in a group can be called a host or a quarrel. (I wish I knew the proper name of the shrub.)
All words are names, really. They name objects and actions and interactions and qualities and spaces and creatures and time. They create worlds. As a young reader, I fell in love with diction. It delighted me that Nancy Drew ate luncheon and drove a roadster and the Little House books abounded in johnnycakes, deer licks and calico. For some reason, I remained enamored with the term “fortnight” long after I read Little Women.
Stephen King is often quoted as saying, “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.” I think that’s dead wrong. I don’t advocate looking up words to get fancy or sound erudite—that’s foolish—but I do look them up to make sure I’m using the word I want, the one that sounds and feels right, the one that fits. I have thesaurus.com open throughout my revision process. To be fair to Stephen King, this particular quote, which comes from his essay “Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully – in Ten Minutes,” relates to avoiding reference books when writing first drafts—which is a different story altogether and sound advice. I don’t know how Mr. King feels about his words being used to malign the use of thesauruses in general.
I am very fond of looking things up–in thesauruses and elsewhere. In writing The Saltwater Twin, I’ve looked up the name of the little birds with the skinny legs and beaks that run along the water line—plovers; the correct plural of octopus, which is octopuses, not octopi; and distelfink, a stylized goldfinch that frequently appears in Pennsylvania Dutch folk art. I’ve searched for words I couldn’t quite remember—selvage: the edge of a bolt of fabric; apostate: a person who turns away from her faith. And, thanks to Google images, I know my grandmother’s suitcase was an American Tourister.
I love this. I love learning (and relearning) the names for things and putting them into the sentences where they’ll live in my book.
Though I’m not 100% sure I’ll find the right place to use “fortnight.”