I love words.
Well, of course, you say. You call yourself a writer. Of course you love words. But I love them even outside the context of stories or articles or poems. I love the sound of them. The taste of them. The shape of them. I love words and phrases and whole sentences and paragraphs. Give me a good, meaty word to chew on and I’m happy.
I collect words in the same way I love picking up those little bits of frosted beach glass or finding an agate that catches the slanted sunlight.
Here are a few words and phrases that have caught my eye and ear over time.
In The Sailor’s Word Book I found bran, which meant to lie under a floe edge, in foggy weather, in a boat in Arctic seas, to watch the approach of whales. (Could you think of anything more lovely, all contained in four letters?)
From research into Lake Superior in an old journal I found this description “a little dumpling of a schooner.”
From hearing a former railroad worker talk, I learned gandy dancer, a term for an early railroad worker who laid and repaired tracks.
From hearing the TV weather report about a torrential rain in Fort Wayne, Indiana: “It’s a real frog choker out there.”
And one of my all-time favorites, from a talk on geology about which I understood almost nothing but loved the sound of this: pelecypod-bearing wacke.
Will I ever use these words? Maybe not. Some are archaic, some regional, some scientific. But just the act of collecting them feels like a way to tune my ear to the sound of language, which is at the root of what we writers do. We manipulate sound and meaning. Why not collect words in the same way an artist makes sketches or a composer gathers musical phrases?
And who knows? Maybe I will find a way to use them, although most likely not all in a single sentence. Unless, or course, I have the chance to turn down a job as a gandy dancer, board a little dumpling of a schooner moored to some pelecypod-bearing wacke, and sail off in a real frog-choker to bran.
Hmmm, maybe there’s a story there after all.
Phyllis Root is the author of over forty books, almost all of them picture books, both fiction and non-fiction. Her middle grade novel, Lilly and the Pirates, is currently under contract. Aunt Nancy and Old Man Trouble won the Minnesota Book Award, and Big Momma Makes the World won the Boston Globe Horn Book Award. Root was awarded a 2006 McKnight Fellowship for her book, Lucia and the Light.