One reason I’m a writer is that words fascinate me. Better than that, they amuse me, like shiny shapes swirling from a mobile over my playpen.

An intriguing unfamiliar word tweaks my ear or flashes across my retinas, and I think, Ooh, listen! Look at that! I wonder what that means? And Google and I are off down another internet rabbit hole.

My sister, Nancy, taught me the word “widdershins.” I didn’t care what it meant, I just wanted the pleasure of saying it. Widdershins. Widdershins. Turns out it has both a practical meaning and a negative connotation. It’s a direction, meaning “to the left” or “the opposite of the way the sun appears to move,” or “counterclockwise.” (What’s a kid to do with that word nowadays, having experienced only digital clocks?) The negative connotation is that, well, it’s a negative direction – against the “natural” movement of things, like the word “sinister,” which originally had almost the same meaning.

At a wonderful kids’ science exhibit called “Grossology,” three of my grandchildren and I got to learn all about the “gross” icky, sticky, stinky things that human bodies can do. I loved it! We could watch drop of snot drip from a gigantic nose. We got to slide down a twisty fiberglass colon and be defecated out the lower end. My prim mother would have been appalled! And we got to learn the word “borborygmi,” which has both a practical meaning and a positive connotation. Borborygmi are the natural sounds a digestive system makes while it’s doing its job. (“Borborygmus” is the word for a singular sound, but “borborygmi” is more amusing and poetic to me.) Although borborygmi might be embarrassing in polite company (at least after the age of 16 or so), and can result in even-more-embarrassing burps or farts, if you don’t have some rumbling and bubbling going on inside it might mean that things are not well in intestine-ville.

A “katzenjammer” is a hangover. “Tatterdemalion” means shabby or dilapidated. The word “kakistocracy” might come in handy in the months ahead – it means government by the worst persons. A “peripatetic” is a person who travels from place to place; one can chant it while walking: “per-i-pa-tet-ic, per-i-pa-tet-ic.” And the word “ensorcel” seems to contain a bit of what it means – to bewitch.

The other day, looking up the meaning of “amphigory,” I popped down a digital rabbit hole and ran into this book review, written by Robert McCrum, obviously a member of the word-collecting tribe:

“Schott’s Original Miscellany is strangely unputdownable. It is the mother of all miscellanies, aka an amphigory, a medley, a pot-pourri, a gallimaufry, a salmagundi, an omnium-gatherum, a vade mecum, a smorgasbord… Oh boy, but Schott is a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles, a mad magpie at large in the wide world of facts and words.” (Robert McCrum in The Guardian, December, 2002, a review entitled “God Bless you, Mr. Schott.”)

THAT reviewer, Robert McCrumb, is a man who knows how to play with words!

So it’s time to end this blog post – I’m headed off down another lagomorphic warren entrance to see if I can find anything else written by Mr. McCrum, clearly my compatriot in collecting delicious nomenclature.

word photo



In January I gave myself a wondrous gift: a week away to do nothing but write poetry. “Nothing but write” means, to me, no TV, no phone, no clock, no schedule. Just me, simple food, tea, some sacramental chocolate, and whichever Muse shows up.


What I hadn’t anticipated about my week away was that, in the middle of the first draft of my first poem, my computer would freeze up and die – wouldn’t let me reboot or even shut it down.


I took this to be a direct challenge from the Muse, about how committed I was to my writing. I rose to her challenge by hauling in tablets of paper, a handful of pens, and my Roget’s Thesaurus. I was going to spend this writing week doing things the old-fashioned way.


I had forgotten how much I love a real Roget’s Thesaurus. I’d gotten used to relying on the thesaurus built into my Mac, or the one on But both of those are really just synonym collections, not the real thesaurus deal. And for someone who loves words, the Roget’s Thesaurus has no substitute.



One scans a list of synonyms, but one dives into the pages of Roget’s. For instance: I had placed the word “interesting” in brackets into a poem to indicate that it was just a placeholder for a better word that I’d find later.


(“Interesting” is a lazy word. If someone asks me how last night’s disastrous meeting went, and I don’t want to lie, nor do I want to give them the blow-by-blow, I answer, “It was interesting.” “Interesting” hides more than it reveals.)


So I looked up “interesting” at the back section of the thesaurus, and found the number 617.5 beside it. (That refers not to a page number, but to a place in the main part of the book.) At section 617.5 Allurement I found a whole collection of substitute words, clustered in gradations of meaning. One of those words was “delightful” along with the recommendation that I search further at 829.8 Pleasureableness.


When I got to 829.8, I noticed that 830 Painfulness followed, then 831 Content and then Discontent, Regret, Relief, Aggravation, Cheerfulness, Sadness, each with their own full baskets of synonyms. Before 829.8 Pleasureableness there were 828 Pain and 827 Pleasure, and Excitability and other nuances.


Now what was it that I was looking for when I started?  Uh-oh! I’d forgotten one of the cardinal rules of using a thesaurus: keep track of the sequence. Like Hansel dropping breadcrumbs on the path to the witch’s house, you must keep track of where you’ve been because you’re not necessarily sure of where you’re going. This keeping track of the path is something my computer doesn’t do for me, but with pen and paper it’s easy to make marginal notes – so long as I remember to do it!


There is nothing quite so satisfying as finding exactly the right word for a poem – one with the precise meaning, one with the right number of syllables, one beginning with the sound needed to complete a string of alliteration. That perfect word may have arrived from a totally unexpected corner of Wordland, but suddenly there it is, and the poet places it with a smug “thunk” just where it belongs.


I came home from my poetry week with abundance from the Muse: 23 drafts of new poems, waiting to be transcribed into digital form. My computer tech has repaired my laptop, and all is well in my little world of technology.


But rather than returning my analog Roget’s Thesaurus to the bookshelf, I’ve decided to keep it close at hand, to inspire, to inform and, sometimes, simply to lure me away to play for a while in the Land of Words.