Vocabulary From Books #5: The Bookmark Revelation

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Sometimes the simple, obvious solution is the hardest thing to think of.

I’ve torn sticky notes into strips to tab words I don’t know (I never bothered to buy actual sticky tabs) but they come loose easily, and eventually I ran out of notes anyway and never got more, since it wasn’t a good solution. I’ve read books with my vocabulary journal and my phone sitting in arm’s reach, so I can stop to look up words, but in books where that happens frequently, I find myself getting burned out on the process, all that stopping and starting. I’ve dog-eared pages with the intention of coming back and looking up a word, but since I don’t mark the word directly (I’m really hesitant to do that whenever I’m not sure I’m keeping the book) sometimes I end up reading the whole page over to find/remember the problem word, and that’s just slow.

I’m dedicated to expanding my vocabulary this way–I’ve been doing it for 2½ years–but it can be a trial sometimes, especially with certain authors.

When I started Misery, I was at my desk, which is not where I keep my stash of bookmarks. I did, however, have a small pile of index cards. I like my pretty bookmarks, of course, but I’ll use just about anything in a pinch.

When I ran into my first unknown word, everything fell into place.

I’ll admit that I expected to find more words in Misery I’d need to learn, given my past experience with Stephen King, but a week later Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters more than made up for any perceived lack of new vocabulary.

What were the actual words? Let’s find out together.

The door at the far end of the huge ward opened and in came Annie Wilkes–only she was dressed in a long aproned dress and there was a mobcap on her head; she was dressed as Misery Chastain in Misery’s Love.

mobcap: a large soft hat covering all of the hair and typically having a decorative frill, worn indoors by women in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

And he had returned to his calèche without so much as a response to Geoffrey’s question.

calèche: a light low-wheeled carriage with a removable folding hood.

On Monday, July 17, a most intriguing thing took place: one of the tiles from the top of the cenotaph at town center came loose and fell to the ground, shattering into a good many pieces.

cenotaph: a monument to someone buried elsewhere, especially one commemorating people who died in a war.

Mother is having only a slightly better time of it than Mrs. Moseley who, having fallen victim to chronic aposiopesis in the morning, spent the bulk of the afternoon seated in silent defeat behind her desk, while her restless third graders improvised games of catch with a variety of show-and-tell items.

aposiopesis: the device of suddenly breaking off in speech.

Allow me, finally to offer up this arresting little trenchancy: given a few weeks, I, or either of you–most anyone on this isle for that matter–might learn how truly easy it is for one to create a sentence of length matching Nollop’s–perhaps one even shorter.

trenchancy: vigorousness or incisiveness in expression or style.

What a pharisaic, vigilante witch!

pharisaic: relating to or characteristic of the Pharisees or Pharisaism; self-righteous or hypocritical.


Those who look closely at my pictured bookmarks will notice several words missing from my post. I became frustrated with Ella Minnow Pea for that very reason: when I found an unfamiliar word, I had to either look it up right away or make my best guess as to whether it was an existing word I truly didn’t know, or an invention of the author’s. I dismissed most of the inventions I saw based on their obvious root meanings and context–if I could figure out what was meant by it, that was good enough for me. Apparently, though, several made it through my rough screening process, leaving me looking up definitions that don’t exist.

Usually this peril doesn’t exist–I’ve only discovered one other nonexistent word that way prior to Ella. So it’s not putting me off my vocabulary quest, but it was disheartening.

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Vocabulary from Books #4: The Once and Future King Edition

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I looked up so many words in the first two chapters of The Once and Future King that, at one point, a linear projection of that rate would have yielded almost 400 new words by the end of the book.

That didn’t happen, of course. The new words dropped off dramatically after the first 200 pages. But I ended up with fourteen, and while that doesn’t set a record, it’s enough for another entry in my vocabulary series.

On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays it was Court Hand and Summulae Logicales, while the rest of the week it was the Organon, Repetition and Astrology.

organon: an instrument of thought, especially a means of reasoning or a system of logic

On a neat row of nails there were Indian bells and swivels and silver varvels, each with Ector cut on.

varvel: (falconry) a metal ring bearing the owner’s name or coat of arms, attached to a hawk’s jesses and used to identify the bird

A special shelf, and the most beautiful of all, held the hoods: very old cracked rufter hoods which had been made for birds before Kay was born, tiny hoods for the merlins, small hoods for tiercels, splendid new hoods which had been knocked up to pass away the long winter evenings.

rufter: (falconry) a loose-fitting hood for birds

Sir Ector visited the place each morning at seven o’clock and the two austringers stood at attention outside the door.

austringer: a keeper of goshawks

Hob is only a villein anyway.

villein: (in medieval England) a feudal tenant entirely subject to a lord or manor to whom he paid dues and services in return for land

Kay began walking off in the wrong direction, raging in his heart because he knew that he had flown the bird when he was not properly in yarak, and the Wart had to shout after him the right way.

yarak: (of a trained hawk) fit and in proper condition for hunting

This Beast has the head of a serpent, ah, and the body of a libbard, the haunches of a lion, and he is footed like a hart.

libbard: an obsolete spelling of “leopard”

‘I have a brachet,’ he said sadly.

brachet: a female hunting hound that hunts by scent

‘I am taking you to see one of those,’ said the tench, ‘the Emperor of these purlieus.’

purlieu:  1. the area near or surrounding a place; 2. a person’s usual haunts

There were … six pismires, some glass retorts with cauldrons …

pismire: (archaic) an ant

Also I will teach the child to lead out the hounds to scombre twice in the day in the morning and in the evening, so that the sun be up, especially in winter.

scombre: defecate

There, there, my dowsabel.

dowsabel: an obsolete word for “sweetheart”

The insect season was past its peak, for it was really the time for wasps and fruit; but there were many fritillaries still, with tortoise-shells and red admirals on the flowering mint.

fritillary: 1. A Eurasian plant of the lily family, with hanging bell-like flowers; 2. A butterfly with orange-brown wings that are checkered with black.

She was a true Weyve–except for her long hair, which most of the female outlaws of those days used to clip.

weyve: (obsolete) female outlaw


I’ll be posting my review of The Once and Future King on Friday — in the meantime, if you want to learn more strange and obscure words, check out the rest of the Vocabulary from Books series!

Vocabulary from Books, #3: The Jane Eyre Edition

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I finished reading Jane Eyre over the weekend, despite all my NaNo writing time and despite it being 700 pages long.

It tied Paula for the most vocabulary words looked up (17 each) so I figured it merited a post of its own, as well.

Many are archaic and have fallen sharply out of use in the last century, but as I’m hoping to start ticking some more classics off my list (more on that later) they’re still good to know.

What a miserable little poltroon had fear, engendered of unjust punishment, made of me in those days!

poltroon: an utter coward

Bessie, having pressed me in vain to take a few spoonfuls of the boiled milk and bread she had prepared for me, wrapped up some biscuits in a paper and put them into my bag; then she helped me on with my pelisse and bonnet, and wrapping herself in a shawl, she and I left the nursery.

pelisse: a long cloak or coat made of fur or lined or trimmed with fur; a woman’s loose lightweight cloak with a wide collar and fur trimming

I was now nearly sick from inanition, having taken so little the day before.

inanition: exhaustion caused by lack of nourishment

At that hour most of the others were sewing likewise; but one class still stood round Miss Scatcherd’s chair reading, and as all was quiet, the subject of their lessons could be heard, together with the manner in which each girl acquitted herself, and the animadversions or commendations of Miss Scatcherd on the performance.

animadversion: criticism or censure; a critical comment or remark

Miss Temple is full of goodness: it pains her to be severe to any one, even the worst in the school: she sees my errors, and tell me of them gently; and if I do anything worthy of praise, she gives me my meed liberally.

meed: a deserved share or reward

A little solace came at tea-time, in the shape of a double ration of bread–a whole, instead of a half, slice–with the delicious addition of a thin scrape of butter: it was the hebdomadal treat to which we all looked forward from Sabbath to Sabbath.

hebdomadal: weekly

I discovered, too, that a great pleasure, an enjoyment which the horizon only bounded, lay all outside the high and spike-guarded walls of our garden: this pleasure consisted in prospect of noble summits girdling a great hill-hollow, rich in verdure and shadow: in a bright beck, full of dark stones and sparkling eddies.

beck: (British) a mountain stream

Tonight I hailed the first deep notes with satisfaction; I was debarrassed of interruption; my half-effaced thought instantly revived.

debarrass: to take (from a person) something that causes shame or embarrassment

Leah, make a little hot negus and cut a sandwich or two: here are the keys of the store room.

negus: a hot drink made from port, lemon, sugar, and spices

She hastened to ring the bell; and, when the tray came, she proceeded to arrange the cups, spoons, etc., with assiduous celerity.

celerity: swiftness of movement

The human and fallible should not arrogate a power with which the divine and perfect alone can be safely entrusted.

arrogate: take or claim (something) without justification

Next morning I had the pleasure of encountering him; left a bullet in one of his poor, etiolated arms, feeble as the wind of a chicken in a pip, and then thought I had done with the whole crew.

etiolated: having lost vigor or substance; feeble

If she objects, tell her it is my particular wish; and if she resists, say I shall come and fetch her in case of contumacy.

contumacy: stubborn refusal to obey or comply with authority, especially a court order or summons

It was not, however, so saturnine a pride: she laughed continually; her laugh was satirical, and so was the habitual expression of her arched and haughty lip.

saturnine: 1. (of a person or their manner) slow and gloomy; 2. (of a person or their features) dark in coloring and moody or mysterious; 3. (of a place or setting) gloomy

As if loveliness where not the special prerogative of woman–her legitimate appanage and heritage!

appanage: a gift of land, an official position, or money given to the younger children of kings and princes to provide for their maintenance

I have seen in his face a far different expression from that which hardness it now while she is so vivaciously accosting him; but then it came of itself: it was not elicited by meretricious arts and calculated manoeuvres; and one had but to accept it–to answer what he asked without pretension, to address him when needful without grimace–and it increased and grew kinder and more genial, and warmed one like a fostering sunbeam.

meretricious: apparently attractive but in reality having no value or integrity

I thought of Eliza and Georgiana: I beheld one the cynosure of a ballroom, the other in the inmate of a convent cell; and I dwelt on and analysed their separate peculiarities of character.

cynosure: a person or thing that is the center of attention or admiration


I’ll be posting my review of Jane Eyre on Friday!

Vocabulary From Books, #2: The Paula Edition

Sunday Tomes and Tea - Paula

Last week, when I reviewed Paula, I left out the part where it was the most challenging book, vocabulary-wise, I’ve read since I committed to looking up unfamiliar words. In the first ten pages alone, I had to look up three–and having to stop so often was breaking my flow, so I rummaged in my craft box where I thought I had some tabs. I did! Once I started marking sentences, I could look up several at once instead.

Paula gave me a record-shattering seventeen new words. (The previous title-holder appears to be Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin with five.)

My hat’s off to both Isabel Allende and the translator, Margaret Sayers Peden, for the astounding range of words I got to learn.

Some few irascible types died frothing at the mouth, although the cause may not have been rage, as evil tongues had it, but rather, some local pestilence.

irascible: having or showing a tendency to be easily angered

By then the name Salvador Allende, the founder of Chile’s Socialist Party, was being bruited about.

bruit: to spread (a report or rumor) widely

In appreciation, one of them, a furrier by trade, gave Memé a luxurious coat of gray astrakhan.

astrakhan: the tightly curled fleece of the fetal or newborn karakul lamb

Crossing the cordillera of the Andes is engraved in my soul as one of the true epiphanies of my existence.

cordillera: a system of mountain ranges often consisting of a number of more or less parallel chains

I had never experienced anything similar with my grandfather, or any other member of family, all of whom believed that paucity is a blessing and avarice a virtue.

paucity: a smallness of number or quantity

Memé’s ghost was lost in the gelid crannies of a house built for summer pleasure, not winter wind and rain.

gelid: icy; extremely cold

When my grandfather had made the last repairs on the house and tired of fighting the ineluctable erosion on the hill and the plagues of ants, roaches, and mice, a year had gone by and solitude had embittered him.

ineluctable: unable to be resisted or avoided; inescapable

He bought the gin at a corner liquor store whose proprietress often disturbed the sleep of that concupiscent patriarch.

concupiscent: filled with sexual desire; lustful

A glacial silence greeted my peroration.

peroration: the concluding part of a speech, typically intended to inspire enthusiasm in the audience

From the first issue, the magazine provoked heated polemics.

polemic: a strong verbal or written attack on something or someone

The country seemed nearly out of control, and Salvador Allende announced a plebiscite that would allow the voters to decide whether he should continue governing or resign and call new elections.

plebiscite: the direct vote of all the members of an electorate on an important public question, such as a change to the constitution

She listened quietly to my disquisition, from time to time casting an eloquent glance out of the corner of her eye.

disquisition: a long or elaborate essay or discussion on a particular subject

Celia learn to flagellate herself and wear a cilice with metal barbs made by La Candelaria nuns, disciplining herself out of love for her Creator and paying for sings, her own and those of others.

cilice: a hair shirt

Bomber planes flew like fatidic birds over the Palacio de La Moneda, dropping their bombs with such precision that they exploded through windows and in less than ten minutes set ablaze an entire wing of the building, while tanks lobbed tear gas canisters from the street.

fatidic: of or relating to prophecy

I had come from winter, the petrifying order of the dictatorship, and widespread poverty to a hot and anarchical country in the midst of a petroleum boom, an oil-rich society in which profligacy reached absurd limits: everything was flown in from Miami, even bread and eggs, because it was easier to import than to produce them.

profligacy: 1) reckless extravagance or wastefulness in the use of resources; 2) licentious or dissolute behavior

In the afternoons, this ironic grandmother sits down with her knitting beside her granddaughter’s bed and talks to her with not thought for the sidereal silence into which her words fall.

sidereal: of or with respect to the distant stars (i.e., the constellations or fixed stars, not the sun or planets)

On a shelf I saw ugly crystal and porcelain bibelots but almost no furniture, except in the dining room.

bibelot: a small object of curiosity, beauty, or rarity; a trinket


As always, have fun reading and keep looking up those unknown words!

Vocabulary From Books, #1

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Last year, I created a Writing Homework assignment charging you to look up the words you don’t know as you’re reading.

I’ve been keeping a vocabulary journal for the whole year, and while it goes through fallow periods when I’m reading books that don’t drop the ten-dollar words, it has been growing.

Time to share some of the entries and their sources!

He used to present copies of this otiose chronicle to his business associates, who must have been surprised, though perhaps not.

Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin

otiose: 1) being at leisure, idle, indolent; 2) ineffective or futile; 3) superfluous or useless

Every family had a few skeletons in their cupboards, but the Vanger family had an entire gallimaufry of them.

Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

gallimaufry: a confused jumble or medley of things

The desert was the apotheosis of all deserts, huge, standing to the sky for what might have been parsecs in all directions.

Stephen King, The Gunslinger

apotheosis: the highest point in the development of something; a culmination or climax

A clear stream ran out of the woods and across the center of the clearing, first bubbling through a deep channel in the spongy earth and friable stone, then pouring across the splintery rock floor which sloped down to the place where the land dropped away.

Stephen King, The Waste Lands

friable: easily crumbled

“Let me see your Jewish manuscripts and incunabula.”

Geraldine Brooks, People of the Book

incunabulum: an early printed book, especially one printed before 1501

When Ivy had asked for clarification, she had been told that her abbreviations were “schoolgirlish and recondite.”

Neal Stephenson, Seveneves

recondite: (of a subject or knowledge) little known; abstruse

“If nothing else, I might accidentally step on his fleam and break it; that’s probably the only way I’ll stop him from bleeding people.”

Diana Gabaldon, The Fiery Cross

fleam: a handheld instrument used in bloodletting


I plan on doing more of these posts with the more useful and/or interesting words I turn up, but the scheduling, of course, will depend on what I’m reading and how quickly I acquire new words to share. Until then, keep reading, and keep looking up those definitions!

Writing Homework #5: Vocabulary

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More accurately speaking, this is reading homework. Let me explain.

When I was in ninth grade, every Friday in my English class we’d divide into groups of four and play Scrabble. There was only one week the entire year that I didn’t win my table. (Bragging, yes, but also the truth. I’m a Scrabble fiend, I wish I got to play more often.)

Late in the year, I was still undefeated, and one of my opponents complained to our teacher. “Mrs. Norris, why does Elena always win?”

Mrs. Norris answered, “Because she reads more than you.” Without batting an eyelash, of course.

There are vocabulary calendars and vocabulary games and vocabulary websites, and I’m certainly not discouraging anyone from using them–but the simplest way to learn more words is to read…

and to actually look up the words you don’t know.

The simple form of this homework is just that: commit to looking up unfamiliar words in whatever you’re reading, even if you’re relatively certain you’ve figured them out from context. Keep a scrap of paper handy to jot them down, if you don’t want to hop up in the middle of a chapter.

The longer form, for the over-achievers: keep a formal vocabulary journal, with an entry for each word containing the quote from the book you encountered it in, and the definition.

I have been since I started my reading challenges at the beginning of the year. A few of my examples:

  • exegesiscritical explanation or interpretation of text, esp. of Scripture. “Ignoring me, Frank went on with his scholarly exegesis.” Outlander, Diana Gabaldon.
  • campanology — the study of bells, encompassing both the technology and the history, methods, and traditions of bell-ringing as an art. “I assure your lordship that for the first time in my existence I regret that I have made no practical study of campanology.” The Nine Tailors, Dorothy L. Sayers.
  • abstrusehard to understand; esoteric. “There was nothing abstruse about the prose.” In the Electric Mist With Confederate Dead, James Lee Burke.
  • mansard — a hip roof, each face of which has a steeper lower part and a shallower upper part. “It’s quite graceful, as factories go: swag decorations, each with a rose in the centre, gabled windows, a mansard roof of green-and-purple slate.” The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood. (In this case, since I couldn’t quite picture it from the definition, I also image-searched it, and now I know precisely what it means. I lived in an apartment with a mansard roof once, and didn’t have any idea what to call it!)

Now, it’s unlikely most of these words are going to find their way into my writing immediately; though I do have exegesis in one of my drafts, as the character describes a long-winded sermon she’s listening to. Knowing more words is never a bad thing, for a writer. The more you know, the better the chance you’ll have the ones you need to tell your story properly.


Need to get caught up on your assignments?