Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Words Matter

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jan• 28•21

Writers need to understand the nuances of language, search out fresh expressions, and continually refresh their vocabularies. For me, language is one of the greatest joys of the writing life.  It’s hardly surprising when last month Merriam-Webster declared pandemic as the word of the year.  As if 2020 hadn’t already asked a lot of us. I don’t know about you, but the Black Plague always seemed so removed from our reality and the Spanish Flu a historical footnote. Yet here we are amid another one, masked and paranoid. Sheesh.

But English is an ever-evolving language and Merriam-Webster has also just announced that 520 new words have been added to the dictionary. I’m all for new words and word combos so we now have hygge,  second gentleman,  cancel culture, long hauler, and new meanings for pod and bubble. Somehow I missed that 535 words were added last April and include dark web, slow-walk, self-isolate, truthiness, deep fake, and PPE.  Apparently I was adjusting to self-isolating. This list was highly influenced, of course, by the pandemic.

If you want to hear about how editors decide on these additions, check out their podcast Word Matters. It’s a podcast for anyone who loved their English classes.

In case you haven’t read it, lexicographer Kory Stamper’s witty Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries it’s a delight. Part memoir, part expose’, we not only learn how she fell in love with language, but also how her gig entails spending a month refining a dictionary entry. And we’re talking words like take or do.

She writes, “We think of English as a fortress to be defended, but a better analogy is that English is like a child. As English grows, it lives its own life, and that is right and healthy. Sometimes English does exactly as we think it should;  sometimes it goes places we don’t like and thrives there in spite of all our worrying. We can tell it to clean itself up and act more like Latin; we can throw tantrums and learn French instead. But we will never be the boss of it. And that’s why it flourishes.”

Here’s a link to Stamper’s TED Talk on dialects, You Speak You.

A bit of good news: Amanda Gorman will recite a poem at the Super Bowl. Poetry and football. I call that progress.

If you live in Philadelphia and love books, you can rent a bookstore for a COVID-style date.

Is your word list growing? As we head into February, in the midst of political turmoil in the US and other places, amid a pandemic, how are your writing plans going?

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

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