Word to the Wise

Word to the Wise

I just love words, don’t you? I am, after all, an author; words are what I use in my craft. If writing is like painting then words are the medium the artist uses to create images. Words have textures and shades of meaning. They have nuance, and they create different pictures in the mind depending on how they are used. Nothing makes me happier than when I sit down with a pen in hand or with an open laptop, ready to create pictures with words.

English in particular is a rich language. There are over 170,000 words in modern English, although most English speakers use only a fraction of those–maybe 35,000 or so, or more if the person is highly educated.  (Note: some sources say English has as many as 800,000 words, a truly astonishing number!) But what makes English such a rich language is the fact that it is, in some ways, a collection of many other languages.

Modern English started as an Anglo-Saxon derivative, influenced by Old German. Notice, for example, the similarity between words like mutter and mother, vinum and wine, garten and garden. It also incorporates many words from the ancient Greek and Roman. In fact, Greek and Latin roots are behind about 60% of English words, particularly in law and medicine. To this day a knowledge of Greek and Latin is strongly encouraged for lawyers and people in the medical field. (My high school English teacher made us memorize dozens and dozens of Greek and Latin roots. Thank you, Mrs. Vocature, whevever you are!)

Finally, English takes a sizable percentage of its words from the French  and Norman languages. This is especially noticeable with words pertaining to food: venison, mutton, poultry,meringue, etc.

This is not a cow; it’s “boeuf” (beef).

You can also find French/Norman words in fields like government (parliament, bailiff), religion (diocese, vicar), and the military (squadron, platoon).

Because of these many roots, a writer in the English language has a wide palette of words to choose from for even a simple concept. For example, consider the very basic word red. An author who wants to say that Darcy handed Elizabeth a rose could say that the rose was red, cardinal, crimson, or maroon; garnet or ruby; scarlet, titian or vermilion. They could also add that it smelled sweet and honeyed or candied or cloying; or they could really tax their reader’s vocabulary and describe it as aromatic, redolent, or odoriferous.

How would you describe this flower?

With so many words in the English language there are many words that have become obsolete. Many of them are descriptive and enriching, words that could still be used today with good effect. On my personal blog site I am going to start a regular feature looking at old English words that have fallen into disuse, either from Jane Austen’s day or earlier. The first word we will highlight is the word lucubrate, which does not mean what it sounds like! Here’s a hint:

It’s something Jane Austen probably did a lot! But to the best of my knowledge it’s not used in any of her books.

Take a guess what it means, and then write a sentence below to use it! (No cheating!) I can’t wait to see what you come up with. And then keep an eye on my blog in the future for more interesting words!

20 Responses to Word to the Wise

  1. Great post. I was shocked when my dad told me in school they had a Latin class. Never heard of the word “lucubrate.” Based on your hint, I would guess it means to write. I will have to go look it up now to see if I am right.

    • Thanks, Darcy. As you have probably learned by now lucubrate has several meanings. The one I had in mind was to study at night, which I am sure our dear Jane did on occasion.

      My high school English teacher spent a lot of time giving us worksheets with Greek and Latin roots, which we had to memorize, and then showing us how they combine to make new English words. Thanks to her there are a lot of times when I can look at a new word, break it down into its roots, and come up with a close approximation of its meaning. I highly recommend everyone learn the same thing. Those roots show up in some unexpected ways!

  2. As an avowed word junkie, this is a post right up my alley! I spend probably as much time in the thesaurus and dictionary as I do in research on other facts. Finding unusual words is a game to me. But, as you noted, it can get tricky. The dating issue is certainly a consideration, but that has to be balanced with words that a modern reader will comprehend and recognize. A too weird word can pull one out of the story, even if correct in usage and etymology, as readily as a too modern word will. I am also guilty of using an old or out-of-style word just because it sounds cool or super intelligent, only to later read through my own novel and not recall immediately what that word meant! Probably not a great idea on the whole. LOL!

    • I’m glad you liked the post, Sharon! By now I hope you’ve read through the comments here and figured out what lucubrate means, or perhaps you already knew it! I am tempted to use the word in an upcoming story, but I fear it would, as you say, pull the reader right out of the story. Until lucubrate has a rebirth it will have to remain an historical curiosity. 🙁

  3. I too find words interesting especially the origins. Slang is probably what interests me the most. I am constantly amazed at what shows up from even the 15th century that we still use today or what is current that we might think has been around for centuries but is an anachronism if used in Regency writings. Love cant though it can be embarrassing at times. I do try to make sure the spelling in my writings is correct and have found that spell check is nearly worthless, Grammarly is better but nothing beats good betas and a knowledgeable editor.

    • I agree about the spell check and Grammarly, Gianna. And I’ve always wondered about the use of contractions in English, especially in Austen’s day. So I generally avoid them in my JAFF writings because I’m never sure which ones were used in her day and which ones weren’t.

  4. One of my favorite archaic words is whilst! And, thanks to Carole S…one of the “new” words which I avoid is “alright.” Yes, words are part of a writer’s toolbox. They add color and change the intensity of our work. However, we must always be careful to avoid using vocabulary to obfuscate! The context of a word is critical. For instance, while “lucubrate” does mean to “write by artificial light” (OED), its more modern usage (from S. Johnson forward) tends to place the usage of the word (verb intrans.) more in the realm of scholarly discourse as in “Arnold (1824) “I could lucubrate largely de ennui scibili but paper happily runs short.” (OED). The transitive form of the verb means “To produce (literary compositions) by laborious study.” So, someone like Patrick O’Brien may have lucubrated. J.K. Rowling, less so. And yes, friend Garrett…I did dive into the Google machine for a moment before I ran downstairs and pulled my OED.

    • I have to admit . . . whilst annoys me, just because I see it overused in a lot of JAFF. It’s a perfectly good word, but I’m betting Austen used the word while a lot more. Obfuscate is a terrific word! I have a list of a bunch of outdated English words that I am going to start highlighting on my blog each month. You may find it interesting.

  5. Well, based on the picture you provided, I would say: Jane Austen lucubrated quite often with pen in hand in the course of writing her stories.

    Not very creative on my part. I love words. And I love it when the writer (or speaker) uses the correct word (e.g. complement vs compliment, or Calvary vs cavalry). I mean, with spell check and grammar checks available, how can someone use the wrong word or even spell it wrong? When in doubt, check it out!

    • That is a perfectly good use of the word lucubrate, and I would say you have come quite close to the meaning! And yes, misspelled words are a pet peeve of mine as well, especially in commercially published JAFF. A misspelling will take me out of the story in an instant, even if the story itself is wonderful.

  6. Marcie’s lucubrate brother sauntered into the parlor with a saucy smile; his manservant trailing quickly behind him carrying a small chest.

    OK, I didn’t cheat and I really wanted to look before I created my sentence. I had to practically tie my hands in order to not Google the word. We can laugh if it is really awful and I hope I didn’t besmirch Marcie’s brother with something ghastly. This was fun. I bet we have some really funny sentences.

    • Although it is the 4th and 5th meaning in the OED, “dissolute” meaning, unrestrained, loose, wanton” and “lax in morals, loose living,” might work in your sentence. Interestingly, the first three older meanings are all obscure. The meaning of the word seemed to firm up between 1460 m(spelled dissolute) and 1513 (spelled dyssolute). Of course, the question is “Was Marcie’s dissolute brother also dyspeptic (1809, p. 822 Compact OED, 1973).

      • Dissolute would work for what came to my mind when I read J.W.’s sentence, but then again, maybe it meant that he was devilishly handsome? Or perhaps filthy rich? As in, my lucubrate older brother inherited all my father’s wealth.

    • J.W. your sentence made me laugh! I think I like your use of lucubrate better than the “correct” usage! Are you meaning it to be a synonym of reprobate or something like that?

      • Actually, until we open that chest… and view the contents… we won’t know. Even I don’t know. Now that is writing by the seat of your pants. I’ll be surprised, along with everyone else, when he opens that chest.

Your thoughts are precious!