What is a lexicon?
A wordbook. The vocabulary proper to some department of knowledge or sphere of activity. The vocabulary or word-stock of a region, particular speaker, etc. A list of words or names.
Why have a lexicon?
“The writers of deep and beautiful works spend real time gathering words,” Priscilla Long says. “They learn the names of weeds and tools and types of roof. They make lists of color words (ruby, scarlet, cranberry, brick). They savor not only the meanings, but also the musicality of words.”*
As writers, we work with language and it is well worth our time and energy to explore, hunt, collect, and play with words.
Where do we find words?
Words are everywhere! Be a word hunter: dictionaries, encyclopedias, catalogues, kids’ books, websites, magazines, introductions to cookbooks, paint samples sheets, thesauruses, mailers, and flyers, poems, etc.
How do you use a lexicon in your writing?
Ever feel like you just have to write about this thing but then you sit down and nothing comes? Sometimes you have to trust that your story will find its way out. Ever heard that? When I’m stuck, I don’t always find this helpful. But if you make this faith active and immerse yourself in the lexicon of the situation, the words can lead you to your story, to the emotional truth that was drawing you to write about it.
A few summers ago, my boyfriend lived on Catalina Island off the coast of Los Angeles and I had my first encounter with sharks, a whole shiver of them, patrolling the shoreline. After a tedious argument with my seven-year old son who’d donned a wetsuit but refused to leave land, I had to swim through the line of those sharks to join my boyfriend and his two kids, who were already floating and kicking around, face down, snorkels up.
I knew I had to write about it, but what about it? Why did it matter? What did the experience reveal? I had no idea! So I started making lists, concrete words gleaned from my son’s shark books and dictionaries.
shagreen (shark hide with teeth still attached, related to French “chagrin,” anxiety or embarrassment)
Wait. What was that about chagrin? My dictionary says that chagrin is mortification or embarrassment that springs from failure. That was the connection between the sharks and my emotional state! The story I was trying to tell was really about this moment of failure and what it illuminated about loss and grief, parenting, love and the fear of being unworthy. Searching for words and making lists freed me from having to already know where the story was going. And once I found it, I had the vocabulary to bring it life. Here’s the opening line from the finished essay, where my embarrassment is on full display:
Arguing with your kid while standing in a wetsuit is like dumping 39 years’ worth of dirty laundry onto a boat ramp for a bunch of tanned, twenty-something marine biology students to witness.
Here’s your assignment!
What’s your glimmer—a situation or an obsession that’s hooked your attention?
Make it a lexicon! Find words and make lists.
What is the image? What are the objects? Read about them and write down the words that stick out. Gather your material from books on the subject, dictionaries, websites, poems, mythology, etc. Search indexes. Use Google.
Circle 2–3 words from your list that grab you, set a timer, and freewrite on each for eight minutes. Keep your pen moving or your fingers typing. When you’re stuck, don’t stop! Write, “What I mean to say is…” and keep going.
About the class: Let’s Make a Lexicon!
In this four-week class, we’ll dive into the world of words, making word traps (as Priscilla Long calls them) related to our work-in-progress or obsessions and creating reverse lexicons. We’ll use generative prompts to explore our words and themes, and apply our lexicons to revisions. See you soon!
Samantha Claire Updegrave writes creative nonfiction, profiles, book reviews, and poetry. She’s an MFA candidate at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts and assistant editor at Soundings Review.