I’ve always enjoyed reading words that are new to me. From a young age I felt that the way I first encountered a word would shape my use of it going forward. I’ve come to think of words as creatures, animals that need to be viewed and experienced in the wild to really get a sense of them. This means the dictionary is a zoo.
When in your travels you meet a new word, it’s in the province of the writer who employed it, and it functions within and relates to a much broader whole. The choice of any word above another is evidence of a writer’s sensibility; it is the grain of their tone.
Reading a scene (perhaps set at night, in a thicket), all the description, pace and existing impressions of the characters – everything – is reverberating, operating, negotiating, being drawn across strings and sounding chords. Suddenly there it is: the giant squid in the depths, a snow leopard, moonlight on antlers — a new word. Although unknown, it inhabits a territory of meaning, a length of time in the sustained tone.
Viewing a word in rich context steeps it in meaning. Like sonar, the information you already have fleshes out the form of the new word, gives it shade and tone. And then there’s the sound it makes. We all know that words can crackle and slide, bounce and cut. Merde conjures shit; pompous is best when sprayed. The sound is part of your first impression of a word, even before you “know what it means.” Seeing it artfully employed, a weight-bearing beam within the structure, a sense is gained that cannot be gleaned from a dictionary, where words are in captivity.
Of course, we don’t always have this luxury. There will always be times when we’ve got to look up a word for work or study. But whenever possible, I relish having new words slowly revealed through repeated encounters in the wild.