The Names of Things

photo by janetandphil
photo by janetandphil
I like good strong words that mean something.
                                    — Jo March in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women

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 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.”

photo from Wikipedia
photo from Wikipedia

11 thoughts on “The Names of Things

  1. When I was in high school, my grandmother gave me a dictionary as a Christmas gift. I loved books and words and this was the perfect gift. She passed away years ago, but the dictionary with the red cover still sits near my desk so that I can remember her and our shared love of words. I like finding just the right word, too. Not the longest word or the fanciest word, but the one that says exactly what I’m thinking or feeling. I think that’s one of the ways in which my writing has matured. Simple words are best, as long as they convey what it is you’re trying to say.


  2. I got a Roget’s Thesaurus for a high school graduation gift from my Uncle Tim who was a writer and I still treasure it even though the cover is nearly off of it because I once used it as a footrest at my computer. In fact, I thought of getting my niece one for her to take to college with her and then I realized that young people look everything up on their phones. As a copywriter I am constantly looking up words (yes, I must admit that here at work I do it on the computer) and actually miss my old Roget Thesaurus—maybe I’ll bring it to work tomorrow!


    1. Did your feet feel smart? It makes me really mad, though, when the thesaurus online has commercials — not just ads, but videos — playing in the margins. That seems sacrilegious.


  3. Great post. I love words too, not just the way they names things or convey a meaning, but the way they sound as you say them in your mind or aloud, and the way they interact with other words. I am an avid user of the Thesaurus too, especially in second drafts.


  4. Check out a book called Fibblestax, a gorgeously illustrated children’s book about the naming of things, by Devin Scillian and Kathryn Darnell.


  5. I’ve noticed that many kids these days know the ‘every other weekend’ concept of shared custody well. So maybe fortnight – as in “See you in a fortnight, Dad” – could become popular in contemporary American vernacular 🙂


  6. I do this, too. 🙂 Sometimes I find a way to sneak these foundlings into conversations or writing. I also disagree with Stephen King’s quote. Our brains can’t always remember every single synonym.


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