Wednesday, January 17, 2007

JK: Changing Words

Ok, I can't resist sharing about the way our language changes over time. I just finished reading a fine book written by Sheba Hargreaves called The Cabin at the Trail's End. It was published in 1952 and is set in frontier Oregon. It has lovely detail about how things were done (making brooms, etc.) But here's the changing language issue. Where we would write "He said" or "She exclaimed," or "he uttered suddenly," she uses "ejaculated" as in "she ejaculated." Often. It was an acceptable usage for the time and someone writing about the early frontier may well use it and be considered "authentic" but it took me out of the story every time I read it since the meaning of the word has changed so much. It reminded me of something Ted Kooser, the former national poet laureate, wrote in his book, The Poetry Home Repair Kit that I think I've mentioned before, about the importance of word choice and how the writer must work to keep the reader from leaving the page even for an instant to ponder a word. I suspect that did not happen for Ms. Hargreaves readers back in the '50s but it surely did for me.

Some authors I do expect to use words that I'll have to look up (P.D. James for one). I like that about her writing, knowing I’ll learn new words. And as a writer, I like introducing new words or meanings that aren't typical, like "frangible" (meaning easily broken and using as in a “frangible light came through the worn wagon canvas cover”); or "shattered silk" (the stringy quality that silk forms as it ages or is wearing out) but it does mean somehow placing the word in context so that the reader can gather the meaning without having to go away from the story to find it. When a copy editor notes my word usage, I really have to reconsider how strongly I feel about that word. Sometimes, I go with them and delete it because it took them from the story; and sometimes I just can’t not use it!

OK, I've ejaculated enough, I suspect. Happy New Year to all you wordsmiths!

Jane Kirkpatrick,, is the award-winning author of 12 novels and two non-fiction books. A Clearing in the Wild, Book One of the Change and Cherish Series (WaterBrook Press/Random House) is available now!


At 9:15 AM, Blogger Deborah Raney said...

Such a good point about not taking our reader out of the story, Jane. I forget too often that not all readers love the very words themselves as much as I do. But like you, as a reader - and as a writer - I consider an unusual or uniquely used word (in a context that defines it for me) to be buried treasure!

At 10:38 AM, Blogger Rachel Hauck said...

Thanks, Jane, for a thought provoking post.


At 11:20 AM, Blogger Heather said...

So many people think, when I tell them I'm a writer, that I must have a vocabulary the size of Alaska. Well, yes and no. I do love new words. I love words period. But that doesn't mean I use supercallifragilousdiexpialadocious (no idea on the spelling of that!) just so that I can sound precocious. It's all about the voice, I'm learning.

At 2:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Coincidentally (*s*), just this morning I ran across a sale on Noah Webster's first 1828 edition of the Dictionary of the English Language (a facsimile), on this site:

Being an historical dialect enthusiast, I was excited to learn such a thing is available, and fairly affordable, too. Sale runs until the end of January.


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