Friday, April 22, 2005

Beautiful, beautiful words: Musings on vocabulary

I had another "I really ought to be a grad student in English" moment yesterday. Ashpenaz (aka Ashley the Blue Raider) will be glad to hear it: she keeps telling me to go to grad school. Anyway...

I was trying to describe the light of April here in middle TN. I wanted to use the word fulgent, thinking it meant "fruitful or fertile." But after reading the definition over at, I discovered that fulgent describes light, not fertility. Which was interesting...the connection, that is. Wonder why the word sounds so "full," so "pregnant"? Is fulgency (is that a word) a different kind of light from luminosity or lustrousness or brilliance? (The online dictionary is wonderful at explaining the connotations of various synonyms.) And where and in what context had I read the word fulgent before?

I've discovered that I understand vocabulary instinctively by context: how the word is used in a sentence and how it is usually used by other writers. I see words as the linguistic counterparts to paint colors. Miss Blue Raider can attest to this---I love the metaphor--->that having many words which one knows how to use is like having a palette of many paint colors and knowing how to use them. (Mom uses the same metaphor for fabric. Of course, she's better at spatial things and at geometry than I.)

My office has a dearth of metal surfaces. I figure if one must house all this stuff in filing cabinets and on shelves, why not put the surfaces to good use? Bless the person who invented magnetic word kits. I think I have four sets of them here. I love using the little magnets. But you have plenty of paper and pens, don't you, Elena? you point out. Why not just use those? Or heck, the computer? Of course, I use those things. But there's something about holding that little magnet in one's hand...then moving it to another spot...making all sorts of combinations...the serendipity of new or revisited phrasings. The flexibility of language comes alive, in a sense. You see that words are components...that they can be and do many different things.

I actually tried to organize my magnets by part of speech: nouns, pronouns, verbs, linking verbs, interjections, adjectives, and so on. But some words can be more than one part of speech! Ack! And the system breaks down... So we have partial organization and partial "muddle" (mess, in Britspeak).

So...back to the "grad school" moment---I wanted to find the Emily Dickinson poem in which she describes the light of winter. And I did. I was so excited. More excited than one probably ought to be about poetry. But there I am...finding again this poem I had read in high school (when I was described as Emily Dickinson reincarnated, a story for another post). Yes! Someone else understands that light has different qualities and that it changes with the seasons.

My friends were baffled last autumn when on a hike in a local park I remarked about the light being different in the fall, winter, spring, and summer. Baffled. I tried to explain. But how do you describe the ineffable? Another artist might have understood. (Perhaps Ashpenaz will.)

This difference of light perhaps involves the distance of the sun from Earth and the amount of moisture in the air. Do you not see the difference between the bright, almost sharp, dry light of winter and the soft-edged, almost dense, moist air of spring before the rain falls? Emily did. She knew the harshness of winter's stark sunshine. I see that sunshine and it pains me. It's like needles.

But the light these days...the beautiful light of green here. And periwinkle, lavendar, and warmish pink. It's the flowers and grass and trees of course---the color palette. But the light cannot be divorced from what it shines upon---at least, for me, because of how I see things.

I see things in snapshots. Explains why I write poetry, rather than fiction. (I don't think in storylines, which is odd---because in my mind, I can see how to get to a particular location linearly, not spatially. My thinking doesn't manifest itself in novel or short story form, though. 'Tis a pity.) And of course, photography is highly dependent on light.

So...this thing about light and about the words to describe light and its qualities. Wow...I sensed that certain words had certain connotations but could not articulate those nuances. And that's where Webster's came in yesterday. Fabulous, fabulous resource! If you click on the right word, its main entry shows its synonyms and then explains the connotations of those words. Some of them were ones I already knew, really, but reading the explanations was confirmation. And I like confirmation. Don't you? ;o)

My "discovery" (at
Brilliant has to do with sparkling light. Radiant has to do with rays of light (eg. me---according to one co-worker; what an interesting compliment!). Luminous suggests "steady, suffused, glowing light by reflection or in surrounding darkness" (eg. candlelight). Lustrous describes "an even, rich light from a surface that reflects brightly without sparkling or glittering" (eg. the reflection off of my coffee table when it's sporting a new coat of furniture polish).

Ooh, more "light" words: dazzling, startling, stark, focused, beam, diffused, scattered, dimmed, patterned...

See?!? So many possibilities!

Why do people limit themselves to the usual words? Why not expand one's vocabulary? Why use a word that does not fit exactly, when a more precise one exists?

I am passionate about this---this artistic selection of words! You see, "for your born writer, nothing is so healing as the realization that [s]he has come upon the right word" (Catherine Drinker Brown).


Arielle said...

I'm in your choir, Elena. =)Words are a passion for me as well. I have a list of words that I love the look, sound, or connotations of.





The list could go on and on!

Afternoon light is one of my favorites - the warm, golden glow of it. I also love early morning light, especially when accompanied by anything from a light mist to a heavy fog.

I can't write poetry, though I admire well-written poetry. I love evocative prose as well.

Elena said...


Saw the "grammar test" post at your blog. A thought---if you ever need extra money, think about freelance copy editing. Goodness knows, more good proofreading and editing is needed in the world!

Arielle said...

Is this 'freelance copy editing' something I could do from home?

I like the sound of it, where would I learn more?