Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | July 2, 2017

Chockablock in Words

I’ve been awash in words this summer, even more than what’s usual for an English teacher and avowed word geek.  I’ve learned that English contains by far more words than any other language – which makes sense since it’s such a mash-up of other languages (due to all that continual conquering by folks from other regions).  According to The Story of English (McCrum, Cran, & MacNeil, 1992), the complete Oxford English Dictionary lists over 500,000 words, not including another half million technical and scientific words that they haven’t yet squeezed in.  That’s a million in all!  Astounding.  The next largest, German, has a measly 185,000, and French, a mere 100,000.

Even though thousands of the words in the OED are no longer used, we still have dozens of synonyms for many words at our disposal and countless adjectives to describe feelings, movements, or elements of nature.  Sadly, though, most native English speakers only use 20,000 to 35,000 words in their daily lives.  While most of us know nearly 10,000 words by age 8, we apparently  stop accumulating new words somewhere around middle age, unless we make a concerted effort not to.


If you’re a word geek like me, you won’t want to miss the new book, Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, by Kory Stamper, a lexicographer and editor at Merriam-Webster.  Fascinating, hilarious, and sometimes shocking, Stamper educates us about everything from the history of words to the difficulty of updating each edition of the dictionary in a culture that coins new words and phrases daily.  She devotes pages to explaining how the internet has radically changed the job of the lexicographer, and she carefully explains just what dictionaries are supposed to do – then also reveals all the misconceptions people have about that.  She chooses to ground much of these discussions in chapters centered on key words:  but, irregardless, surfboard, take, bitch, nuclear, nude, marriage.  (You can likely guess the issues with some of these words without reading the book!)

I’m not kidding when I confess that this book was more of a page-turner for me than any sizzling mystery story.  Stamper’s writing style is highly conversational and readable, making a potentially deathly-boring topic come alive with very contemporary anecdotes and humor.  Some of her passages verge on the poetic.  She clearly loves her job and loves the English language.


So, just as I’d finished reading Word By Word, I headed up to Madison for another


glorious week among fellow poets at U-W’s annual Write-by-the-Lake conference.  And on the first day, what did I discover our focus for the week was going to be?  The power of strong WORDS.  Our instructor, Marilyn Taylor, challenged us to write four poems, one each day, that explored not only a different topic but that used unusual words – which she had compiled for us in advance by scouring other well-written poems.  This created a marvelous constraint for us and shoved us – hard – out of our lexical complacency!

indexFor example, a poem about death or loss was NOT to use any of these tired old death-poem words:  death, loss, grieve, sadness, mourn, sunset, heart, or heaven.  Instead, we needed to find a way to incorporate some of these:  blossom, brittle, dappled, Matisse, pink, polka, smudge.  Most of us agreed it took over an hour just to hit on an idea and get started!  But it was a delight each morning to share our 15 wildly different poems with each other.

A good poet friend of mine has shared that she’s been using this technique – gathering interesting words in advance – for several months now, and creating poems she never would have written otherwise.  They are remarkably fresh and powerful.  Clearly, this is a process I need to start using with my own poetry.


The first poem I composed in Madison is the strangest of the four, and maybe also the strongest, simply because of its weirdness.  The topic was food/cooking.  I owe the entire poem to the word list, primarily “unmoored,” which sparked an eerie scene in my mind.  I call it “Fever.”


Unmoored, marooned, the ship lurched and we

clutched the railing, momentarily forestalled in our

desperate quest to find the source of the smell –

glimmering onions and mushrooms, voluptuous

vegetables – sautéed by some magician below.

Three days after escaping brutal pirates,

we few survivors, slowly starving, awakened

dreaming about home and sun and the great

periwinkle sky barely visible through

louvered windows in the stifling cabin

where we had found meager refuge.  Then

that savory incense pinched us, reeled us in –

hypnotized, unbearded and naked with hope.

Whispering prayers, we made the descent,

deep into the marrow of the iron beast,

where at last we discovered great fires

popping with the brilliantine slick of olive oil.

Outlined by the blaze in the blackness

was a taut, tattooed chef, preening like some

La Scala diva and brandishing machetes

like ginsu knives, his wry smile daring us

to step forward and eat . . . or be eaten.



One more great tool I learned about this week was a new online dictionary/thesaurus called  The extensive lists of synonyms and antonyms they’ve compiled teem with choices you’d never come up with on your own.  (Like “chockablock”!)  Now, how to write a poem about swimming using the words mathematics, shinbone, and wysteria…..



  1. Thanks so much for the book and website tip, Kate. I’ll look into both, and I loved the whole concept of crafting a poem from a word not of your choosing and appreciate how difficult that must be. You did a cracking good job, had me right in the belly of that ship with you.

    • I know you’d really enjoy the book, Susan! Thanks for your note — I so love the sharing process with other writers. 🙂

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