Writers deal in words. We use them to express ourselves and the world around us. They are our currency and passport, they are how we share. We’ve talked about words before, in terms of our favorites, but it goes beyond that. It’s not just about words we love or use most often, it’s really about our personal dictionaries.

When I was in grad school, I took a class that had what I considered odd course requirements. On the first day of class, the instructor told the class that, beyond the obvious writing component, he would expect us to compile a dictionary of words that we came across in class or in the readings that we did not know the definitions of. This struck me as odd because given even the slightest of contextual clues it’s not difficult to parse out the meaning of a word.

The instructor made mention that contextual definitions would not count.

So, for 14 weeks, I copied down “GRE words” I came across in the various readings as well as the words the instructor would write down on the blackboard in class. I found the exercise a bit pointless at first. I have a large vocabulary, I know the definitions of a lot of words, why am I looking up the exact definition of bovine (oxlike, stolid or dull)?

Moreover, my use of language mandates that I write to a common denominator so that any literate person can read and understand what I’m saying. It’s highly unlikely that words like aegis (protection, support, sponsorship) or grundrisse (the essential features or main aspects of something under discussion) will be used.

I admit, I sort of fought the assignment at first. When the instructor did a mid-semester check of our dictionaries, mine was one of the shorter ones in the class. When questioned about the size of my dictionary, I was flippant (disrespectful, lacking seriousness). I didn’t really care. Then something changed. I was out at a social gathering and someone tried to tell an anecdote (a short account of a particular event often of an interesting or amusing nature) except the story took fifteen minutes to tell.

Not very short.

I pointed this out, and after being teased for being “that guy,” those who listened to the story agreed with me. All of a sudden, this personal dictionary that I was being forced to do for class no longer felt like an assignment. Because I knew the exact definition of an anecdote, when the person failed to be brief in the telling of the story the use and reason for the dictionary clicked. It became a quest for knowledge, a visual representation of words I had learned and mastered.

Since that class I have added to this personal dictionary. It has gone from a basic lexicon (a word book describing language with definitions, vocab of a person, group or subject) to a compendium (an account of an extensive subject) of my personal vocabulary and word usage.

I think it is important, as writers that we have and build personal dictionaries. We can’t truly call ourselves writers if we don’t have a command of that which we use to share with others.

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