To tell a story you must use words. Words are the building blocks that shape the kind of people we are. Try to think without using them. Words are such a part of us that we seldom recognize their value.
I grew up loving words. Even now my husband and I joke that our main arguments are about grammar and whether I can use gherkin in Scrabble. While it is completely obvious that I can use gherkin, the value of using gherkin instead of pickle might be harder to understand. The words we choose build the nuanced spaces in our mind.
As we talked about before, and everything we say there is exuberance and defficiency. We always say more than we intend to and we always say less then we mean. Word choice and understanding words combat this. Delving into languages, prefixes and suffixes, origins, and combinations train our mind to be keen and say what is meant . We are combating what Mark Twain critiqued in Finemore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,
“When a person has a poor ear for music he will flat and sharp right along without knowing it. He keeps near the tune, but it is not the tune. When a person has a poor ear for words, the result is a literary flatting and sharping; you perceive what he is intending to say, but you also perceive that he doesn’t say it.”
So without further ado, here are four books that will develop your philosophy of words. This is not a post directly addressing rhetoric, so I’m not including such classics as Aristotle’s On Rhetoric.
The tagline on this book, ‘a vocabulary book for people who don’t need one’, set a snarky tone for this selective dictionary of words that confuse or have fallen out of usage altogether. It is an older book, but it talks about good habits of word usage, deals with variation in origins, and encourages the selection of the proper word for the specific time.
I would not call it a classic, but it is funny and useful and is an entrance to the rabbit hole of wordsmithing.
2) Webster’s Dictionary of Word Origins
Well we know a good dictionary is hard to find and invaluable, but this dictionary of word origins goes beyond the basics and tells the stories of the words. They follow ‘book’ back to its source literarily and literally in the beach tree. Bikini was the location atomic bomb test site in the North Pacific. And morphine from Morpheus the god of dreams. Books on word origins lend life and history to the words we use. It shows they’re not be taken and bandied about, but used intentionally.
Brilliant all the way through, I want to give a special note to the preface where Farnsworth discusses that rhetoric is simply the equations of words. We cannot fault the numbers plugged into those equations for creating atomic bombs or laud them for putting a man on the moon, but both are possible. In his preface he talks about the awful usage of rhetoric, but shows that those same forms can be used to pull our souls closer to the true, the good, and the beautiful.
The forms themselves could take a post of their own, or many. In reading them you use them more consciously.
Anyone who calls their book a stylistic beastiary deserves to be given a chance. While reviewing many of the same forms Farnsworth uses he spends less time explaining them and more time demonstrating them. Both books have tons of examples some the same. But 60 ways focuses on the application of the form.
So, whether you have fallen down the rabbit hole and would like to know the origin of Jabberwocky or delight in developing your zuegma, a brilliant word in its own right, one of these books has something for you.