In the Science section of the New York Times, I recently read a review of a museum exhibition and book celebrating the evolution of natural science museums. In the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries, amateur naturalists gathered everything from butterflies to fossils to plants and curated them in their own “cabinets of curiosities,” which we now call museums.
The article fascinated me because as a kid I spent hours collecting shells, bits of coral, tiny crabs and fish, and any treasure that caught my eye on the beach and in the water. After identifying them, I glued them to cardstock or tucked them into empty matchboxes padded with cotton balls.
As an adult, I still comb beaches for desirable detritus both natural and man-made and plunk them into jars, but I’ve also started collecting more intangible specimens: words.
I got the idea largely from author and writing teacher Priscilla Long’s recent book, “The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life.” She says that, “The writers of deep and beautiful works spend real time gathering words.”
Below are some of her suggestions on word-gathering:
- Read and collect dictionaries, old catalogs, directories, etc.
- Purchase a grammar/usage guide (my favorite is The Deluxe Transitive Vampire)
- Make your own designated lexicon book
- Compile lists of words specific to a topic (e.g. carpentry)of interest
- Write down unfamiliar words and define them down to their root
- Catalog only the words that fire you up
Famous word gatherers include Leonardo da Vinci, James Joyce, Annie Dillard and any writer who wants to get beyond what Long calls “television words, newspaper words, cereal-box words.” Long’s idea isn’t that you put every word you find into your writing, but that by building your own lexicon, you build and deepen your reservoir of language.
I like to think that writing words into my lexicon book is like pinning beetles into my own “cabinet of wonders” from which I can understand the world around and within me a little better.