Treasure your Word Hoard

Classes are over, exams are graded, and I finally have time to get back to the blog, which means I have time to write and think about something other than papers and exams! This morning on the walk, as I was processing last semester’s writing class and thinking about what I’d like to be able to communicate better to students, I was thinking about how poets use patterned language. My textbook (most textbooks) approach formal poetry with lots of terminology for meter, especially, which tends to turn students off. Terms are good to give students a handle to remember abstract concepts by, but they also make it seem as if when you know the term, you know how to do it, and if you don’t get the term you’re completely lost. Of course, that’s not true, especially with rhythm.

I’d like to get students to play with more kinds of sound patterning in a poem without worrying about strict meter or end rhyme. I want them to hear how the vowels and consonants across a line of poetry that sounds good are structured in one of many ways. Assonance and consonance are only a bare beginning to getting how sound can be repeated in different patterns. A poet chooses a word that means what h/she wants and that also has sounds that form a pattern with the other words in the line or stanza. To do this, a poet needs a large, active vocabulary.

This is when it struck me how limiting, pedantic, and stale that word is in English: ‘vocabulary.’ It hardly says anything. In Dutch, the word is ‘woordenschat’ or ‘word-treasure.’ The word ‘schat’ can also be an endearment, like ‘my little treasure’ — ‘schatje.’ This gives more of a mental picture of a collection of words that someone holds dear.

A ‘schat’ can also be the treasure that a dragon would keep, and this got me thinking about how the way writers work with words is much like the way dragons work with their treasure. A dragon’s treasure may be gold, but it may also be anything that sparkles or seems precious. The things in it may be old (ancient) or new, broken or functional. The dragon in folklore actively collects items for its hoard, flying out each day or night to find new objects to add to it. But the dragon does not ignore the things it has gathered, either. It constantly pores over the hoard to make certain nothing is missing — at least it does in the stories I vaguely remember.

Isn’t this a good image for the writer? We all have a relatively large vocabulary, I presume. We know words and recognize them when we read them, but writers are more likely to actively search through that stockpile of words to find the right one to put in the right place. Sorting is a key pastime of dragons, I presume. All writers are (or should be) constantly on the lookout for new words to add to their collection. Those words may be bright and shiny on the surface or they may be unassuming words with a long history of connotations that lend just the right nuance to our pile of language when placed carefully in just the right spot. We tinker with them and shuffle them and toy with them until a pattern emerges.

So I propose a new synonym for ‘vocabulary.’ I’d like to call it your word hoard. I know that won’t catch on any time soon, but maybe in the book about writing that I’d love to write in all my spare time, that’s what I’ll call it.

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