How do I creep thee out, let me count the ways

The 1828 edition of Noah Webster’s dictionary, in Greenfield Village at the Ford Museum, Dearborn Michigan – photo by E. Jurus

“Despite my ghoulish reputation, I really have the heart of a small boy. I keep it in a jar on my desk.” Robert Bloch

“Everyone is a moon and has a dark side, which he never shows to anybody.” Mark Twain

“I fear not the dark itself, but what may lurk within it.” Unknown

Isn’t “lurk” a great word? Makes you think of something that shouldn’t be there, that wants something from you that you don’t want to give, like a piece of your soul. It’s a simple word, but so evocative for writers and their readers.

October 16 is Dictionary Day. It celebrates the birth of Noah Webster, an American writer who published the first dictionary in America in 1806, and it’s the perfect time to also acknowledge the wonderful world of words for thriller, suspense, fantasy and horror writers to enthrall their readers with.

The first single-language English dictionary ever produced was created by Robert Cawdrey, a schoolmaster and clergyman in England. Cawdrey drew on word lists published earlier in educational texts, and in 1604 he published Table Alphabeticall. It listed only about 3000 words, considered ‘hard’ words, as in those unfamiliar to the general public of the time. Defining each word with a simple and brief description, his goal was to organize the English language and help people to become better at speaking it. The archaic terms and spelling would stymie most of us today, though, such as Cawdrey’s description of how “far journied gentlemen” would collect words on their travels and, returning home, “pouder their talke with over-sea language”.

As the English language grew, other kinds of dictionaries began to arise. In 1658, Edward Phillips published one that included technical terms. There were also ‘canting’ dictionaries that listed slang terms. Eventually book publishers started compiling general dictionaries with more expanded entries.

Noah Webster attended Yale College and passed his bar exam. When he wasn’t able to find work as a lawyer, he earned money by writing a series of educational books, later moving to New York City to publish articles, essays and serve as editor for a newspaper. After publishing his first Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, he continued to compile words and definitions, and 22 years later published an even more comprehensive version. There were seven ensuing editions, and his mantle was taken up by George and Charles Merriam, who hired his son-in-law, a professor at Yale, to continue the revisions, including the addition of illustrations. The Merriam-Webster dictionary is a staple today, along with the OED, the Collins English Dictionary, and numerous others.

We tend to take dictionaries for granted – a thing of dread in school when words and grammar were pounded into us – because they’ve been ever-present in our lives, but language has been evolving from the time it was first developed. Cultures began to take note of changing words and meanings as far back as the ancient Greeks, who began creating dictionaries in the first century C.E. (A.D.).

English, in particular, is an amalgam of many other languages – we have borrowed freely and frequently over the centuries. In looking up a word in the dictionary, we find information about its ancestors: OE, or Old English, is common, as you might expect, but Latin is the root of words in many contemporary languages in Europe that have influenced the English vocabulary today.

Take the word “Dragon”. It comes from Middle English (the form of English spoken from the 11th to late 15th centuries) dragoun, which in turn was borrowed from the Old French (version of French spoken in medieval times) word dragon, which came from Latin draco and/or Greek drakon.

We all know that it was a huge mythological creature in somewhat serpentine form, typically depicted with large wings, small legs and a toothy mouth that breathed fire. Wiktionary lists quite a few other definitions, though, including one I wasn’t aware of: “A luminous exhalation from marshy ground, seeming to move through the air like a winged serpent.” The page also lists a number of fun synonyms (should you be writing about a dragon), hypernyms (the broader categories that dragons fall under, i.e. monsters and serpents), derived terms (terms that have ‘dragon’ in their names), related terms (dragoon, dragonet…) and all kinds of other interesting tidbits. An entire page for one little word!

Words are a writer’s best friend, and dictionaries our best resource. If I’m writing high fantasy, I might want to refer to a wyrm or a wyvern instead of a plain dragon. Drawing other cultures into urban fantasy (which is the genre I write), I might want to set part of my story in Kenya (which I’ve actually visited and so can write about authentically, to some extent) and mention their legends of dragoni, perhaps terrorizing a village and eating all of the mbuzi (goats).

Writers can use words in such creative ways to make a scene come to life. Consider this brief excerpt:

She’d been sitting in the kitchen, Chris recounted, when Regan ran screaming down the stairs to her, cowering defensively behind her chair… The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty

We only cower if we’re absolutely consumed with fear. We can picture the girl, Regan, behind that chair, trying to escape from the demon terrorizing her. I read the book when it first came out, and had trouble sleeping for a full week. My hubby, then boyfriend, worked part-time at a movie theatre, and told me how often people in the audiences for the film version fainted. Movies have visuals and ominous music to help set the mood, but writers depend entirely on words.

It’s a good thing there are plenty of them. Apparently “the Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use (and 47,156 obsolete words)”, according to the Word Counter website.  The OED (Oxford English Dictionary) currently contains over 600,000 entries!

In tune with this month and Halloween, I found even more fun stuff online about words. Dictionary.com offers these eerie words to describe nighttime and all its darkness and mystery:

Gloaming – a noun that means ‘twilight’, but in a spooky story, it would be so much more atmospheric

Fuliginous – an adjective that means ‘sooty’ or ‘dusky’; this one is a little obscure for the average reader, imho

Evanescent – an adjective that means ‘abbreviated’, or more specifically ‘quickly fading or disappearing’; it’s often used to describe something like bubbles, or life, but it could be used for something darker

Ether  – a noun that has several meanings, but in this context would more romantically refer to space, as in the heavens, or the air around us

Tenebrous – an adjective that means ‘shut off from the light’, as in dark and murky, or ‘hard to understand’, obscure – very poetic word from the gothic era of literature, useful or not depending on your writing style

All the light had fallen away from the world, with only the fog illuminated now. Even the stars struggled against the black, managing only the slightest pinpricks of twinkles through a gloom that was both everywhere and nowhere at once. It wasn’t the dark of night; it was the tenebrous shadow of bad omens. — C. Robert Cargill, Dreams and Shadows

Horripilation – basically, goosebumps, i.e. the hair on your body standing up, usually from fright, but could be from excitement; the majority of readers would need a dictionary, which is probably why writer Stephen King used it but then went on to explain it:

“Suddenly he was swept by horripilation. The goosebumps swept up from his ankles all the way to the nape of his neck, where the hairs stirred and tried to lift.” Under the Dome: A Novel

A thesaurus can help us find good synonyms for words so we’re not being too repetitive as writers, but it’s a dictionary that gives us clear definitions for the nuances of each word.

I leave you with a sample of classic writing from Bram Stoker. He’s often been chastised for being overly dramatic, but I think his style, and choice of words, worked well for a spectacular Victorian horror story. Here’s part of the scene where Lucy Westenra has finally succumbed to the predations of Dracula (still a mystery to Dr. Sewell and her other suitors at that point). But instead of looking sadly dead, she looks miraculously beautiful – the reason for which, as Van Helsing suspects, will soon become apparent:

“Before turning in we went to look at poor Lucy. The undertaker had certainly done his work well, for the room was turned into a small chapelle ardente. There was a wilderness of beautiful white flowers, and death was made as little repulsive as might be. The end of the winding-sheet was laid over the face; when the Professor bent over and turned it gently back, we both started at the beauty before us, the tall wax candles showing a sufficient light to note it well. All Lucy’s loveliness had come back to her in death, and the hours that had passed, instead of leaving traces of “decay’s effacing fingers,” had but restored the beauty of life, till positively I could not believe my eyes that I was looking at a corpse.”

Happy Dictionary Day!

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