Magic in Words


I love dictionaries.  Even though I believe I have a reasonably extensive vocabulary, I can open a big dictionary and immediately find words I’ve never heard of.  It’s like a book full of treasure.  When I have nothing to read, I can open a dictionary and entertain myself quite happily.  I may never use those words in my writing or conversation, but there’s something magical about knowing them.  (Not to mention the advantage they offer when I’m playing Jeopardy against my family!)

Back in our poverty-stricken youth, we used to play a game called Dictionary.  All you need is a big dictionary (you can play with a small one, but the bigger the dictionary, the more fun the game) and a legal pad and pencil for each player.  The person who’s IT first chooses a word she doesn’t know, and pronounces the word to the group.  If no one else knows it, that’s the word in play.  IT writes down the correct definition, while everyone else writes down a definition of their own devising.  Once all the definitions have been created, all the players turn their papers over to IT, who reads all the definitions out loud, then allows each player to choose which definition he believes is the correct one.  Points are awarded for creating a false definition that wins votes, and of course, IT earns points if no one guesses the correct definition.  We used to play this game all the time and some nights I’d be exhausted from laughing at some of the definitions.  If you’ve never played, I highly recommend you try it.

But the thing about that game is that it often led me to words that later inspired entire short stories (and one unfinished novel, that may someday be finished if I can ever locate the file.  It’s on a floppy disk somewhere in the house.)  When I have trouble getting started working, I visit my dictionary.  It’s a monster volume – I could injure an intruder with it.  I stand it on its spine and let the pages fall open, then let my eyes wander.  If you don’t own a dictionary (and good heavens, why not?) or if you’ve been satisfied with using an online dictionary, you need to go out and get one.  You don’t need to spend a lot of money on a shiny new one – go to a thrift shop, a library sale or a used book store.  Sometimes the older a dictionary is, the more interesting words it will have hidden inside.  There’s magic in words, and the dictionary is where all that magic is gathered in one place. 

**I’ve been asked to announce that reservations for rooms for ConCarolinas 2014 (the home con for almost all of the MW crew) are going fast.  The reason for this is next year’s guest of honor…George R R Martin!  If you’ve been considering coming to con next year, and you want to be absolutely certain of having a nice warm place to collapse at night, it couldn’t hurt to make your reservations now.


19 comments to Magic in Words

  • My two favorite words: Effulgent and Defenestrate.

    And you’d better find that floppy and get things copied off – the longer you wait the less chance you’ll have to do it since the technology is disappearing. It’s quite possible the disk is no longer readable as it is.

  • I actually still have my first laptop, which has a disk drive. It’s a big gray monster of a thing, but it works.

  • Heh! I still have a working Commodore 128D. I unpack it and play some of the old games when I’m feeling nostalgic.

    I don’t have a giant dictionary, but I have a decent sized one and a thesaurus or two. One thing I like to do is go to and look up a word, then use that word in to see all the variations. It helps me brush up on my usage so I’m not relying on the same word over and over when another similar word would work better.

  • The floppy disks themselves that can degrade. I have a few from back in the day that can no longer be read. But I don’t want to hijack this any further :).

  • sagablessed

    I also love the thesaurus. One might wish to check sites that have words that are no longer in common use, if your characters are time or situation oriented.
    Thanks for the heads up on the hotel. I am making my reservation after I am done here.

  • Thanks for sharing that, Misty! I’m pretty sure my comment yesterday got lost in the shuffle. I hope all of the writers can get their rooms without trouble. 🙂

    I love, love, love It’s way better than what comes with my word processor. The best part for me is that you can tab between the two. And I absolutely love the fact that the “dictionary” section includes the origins detail, so I can check to see how old a word is. For my high fantasy, that matters a lot.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    @Dave: I have a friend whose favorite word is defenestrate 😀 It’s an awesome word.

    My favorite dictionary entry is ‘bitch goddess’ – partly because every time I look at the entry I *still* can’t figure out how to use it in a sentence. Anyone here know how to use that one?

  • I have a huge, 2-volume dictionary, each a Pomeranian killer in its own right, and together could smush a good-sized Beagle. They are missing, in a box somewhere while the house is torn up for remodeling.

    And Hepseba, if someone doesn’t come and finish *something* in my house, I’m gonna go all bitch goddess on someone’s backside.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    How interestingly “Devil’s Advocate” passive-aggressive of you, Faith.

  • Ken

    I’ve got a pretty good sized dictionary, myself. As time goes by, I find myself relying more and more on online dictionaries. Ironically, I find it easier to launch a browser, shoot straight to where I can find the right spelling/definition for a word, then get out and back to work. I can easily lose myself in a hard-copy dictionary and, when I come up for air, find that I’ve used up most of my writing time.

  • We used to play Dictionary in school, toward the end of the year, when we all went stir-crazy. I still remember the time the teacher chose the word “flense” and my friends and I all knew the meaning because of Judy Blume’s book, DEENIE (where she says she’s so fat, she could be flensed.) Our strategy was poor, however, and we *wrote down* the real definition as our “guess”, losing that round… Ah, good times… 🙂

  • Love dictionaries, and one of my favorite discoveries was “loggorrhea.” Hey! I was a 13 year old tomboy at the time!
    One of my favorite books now, though, is a 1935 Roget’s Thesaurus that I found at a swap meet. Words change meaning over time, as does their usage. It’s a lot of fun to see how words were used back then (and handy when writing).

  • I’m still grumpy that there’s a word for cutting off a head, but none for cutting off an arm. My dictionary and I went round and round on that issue one night during game. *smiles at Beatriz, if she happens to be looking*

  • Vyton

    We used to play dictionary and loved it. We may need to revive the practice. Loads of fun. I have the two-volume OED that was a book club selection in the ’70s and came in a slip case with a little drawer for a magnifying glass. I really want a second edition Webster’s unabridged. Great post.

  • Maybe I need to create a version of this game to be played at a con sometime!

  • Razziecat

    I used to have a huge unabridged dictionary that I bought on sale somewhere. I was so excited to bring that home! Not sure what happened to it. When my sisters and I were little, one of our favorite old books was an old dictionary of our mom’s, that had pages of beautiful color illustrations. We used to spend a lot of time checking out the insect page 😀

    Ever go to and play? It’s a multiple choice word game; for every right answer they donate 10 grains of rice to a food program. There are different levels. I’m surprised at how many words I know…and at how many I don’t!

  • Misty there are words for lopping off an arm (she said loftily).

    Amputation, cut away, cut off, dismember, dislimb, eliminate, excise, lop, separate, sever, truncate, disassemble, disjoint, maim, part, rend, sunder, remove, mutilate. And maybe dismantle, dismount, dissect, divide. That I could think of at the moment.

    And now I’m worried about myself.

  • Those are great words, but none of them mean specifically cutting off an arm. You can use all those words to mean cutting off almost any body part. I wanted one that just meant cutting off an arm (the way “decapitate” means cutting off a head and only a head.) I wanted “debrachiate” to work, but “brachiate” means “to move by swinging with the arms from one hold to another” and adding the “de” to the front doesn’t make it a legitimate word. *pout*

    If no one hears from Faith and me in the next few days, it’s probably because the NSA has dropped by to have a serious talk with us. *laughs*

  • And Razzie, I love to play Free Rice!