Lately, I’ve been thinking about warm up exercises. Athletes warm up before competition, musicians warm up before performance, so it stands to reason that writers should warm up before they write.

There are many warm up exercises for writers, ranging from freewriting to Ray Bradbury’s noun exercise (the subject of a previous blog in this space), but today I would like to focus on an exercise recommended by a number of successful writers, which I’ve come to see in a new light recently: reading the dictionary.

I first heard about reading the dictionary during Chris Bohjalian‘s keynote address at the Rutgers Writers Conference a few years ago. Paraphrasing from my notes, Bohjalian recommended browsing the dictionary to find the “good” words, making a list of those words, and then trying to incorporate those words into your writing that day. I read the same advice in John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, which is, in my opinion is the best book currently available on the craft of writing. Naturally, I tried incorporating this exercise into my practice, but, admittedly, I was not consistent with it, and it became something I only did sporadically.

That all changed about a month ago when I read an article in the Tolkien: Maker of Middle Earth exhibition guide from the Bodleian Library. I had picked up the book when the exhibit traveled to the Morgan Library in New York, and the guide finally made it to the top of my TBR pile this year.

The exhibition guide contains images from the exhibit and biographical information about Tolkien, as one might expect in a coffee-table book from a museum exhibition, but it includes a number of scholarly articles on Tolkien’s life and work as well.

In the article “Fairie: Tolkien’s Perilous Land,” Verlyn Flieger discusses the etymology of the words “fairy/fae” and “forest” as they relate to Tolkien’s use of the terms in both The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings. While I, personally, disagree with some of Flieger’s critique of Tolkien’s treatment of fairy land, I found his discussion of the forest fascinating, not only in relation to Tolkien’s work, but also in its implications for the enchanted forest/woods in fantasy stories generally.

The word “forest” derives, through French, from the Latin word “foris” which means “outside.” The English word “foreign” has the same root. The native English counterpart is “wood” derives from the middle English “wode” which means both “forest” and “mad.” Thus it is not just the freudian symbolism of the shadows and the darkness that make the forest the perfect entry point into the magical realm, but the connotation of the English words “forest” and “wood”–outside/foreign and madness–as well. Tolkien, the consummate linguist surely was aware of these connotations, considering how precise he was in weaving his own magical spell (a word which, as Tolkien reminds us in his non-fiction writings means story in addition to formula for power).

Upon reading the article, I was immediately reminded of Bohjalian’s keynote and the dictionary reading exercise. I have begun to incorporate the exercise into my practice again, except this time I look beyond the words’ definitions, into the etymology section as well. (My Shorter Oxford English Dictionary has a robust etymology section relating to each entry.) While I may never achieve the precision of Tolkien, I hope to incorporate some of the deeper magic connoted by the “good” words into my writing in the future.


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One thought on “Reading the Dictionary With Sauron’s Eye

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