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153 exquisite words for your writer’s toolbox

David Bowie 1974

I’m on a big David Bowie kick right now.

My previous Bowie kick was in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, but it was a different kind of kick. I was learning to play guitar, and I bought a big David Bowie songbook. I learned to play almost every song. The old stuff, anyway.

Not long after that, I started my fanatical downhill skiing kick, and I nearly ripped my left thumb off in an accident. So much for my rock star fantasy.

My guitar has been gathering dust for awhile, so I decided to sell it on Craigslist, but I wasn’t sure I could do it. I’ve sold almost everything else I own—I’m moving cross-country soon—and it wasn’t hard. But something was holding me back.

You’re clinging, I chided myself, referring to a concept from my not-really-a-kick Buddhist kick.

I had purchased the guitar from a guy I was crushing on the minute he kneeled down next to me, closer than he should have, to demonstrate the instrument’s superior tonal quality. Right. I think he had other things on his mind, though I did too, and I would’ve asked him out if he hadn’t beat me to it.

I thought my reluctance must have been about him. I mean, he was gorgeous—rock-star-model-gorgeous—in fact, when I read The Twilight Saga that’s who I pictured as Edward. Sorry, Pattinson fans. Close, but no cigar.

We were together three years. Later, I realized gorgeous was all I was attracted to except for one thing: he could sing and play guitar. Beautifully. He was in a band and played piano and bass guitar, too, but it’s the guitar I remember. And the Bowie jam sessions.

He was also thrilled that I knew Bowie as I did; I had my first Bowie kick when I was fourteen. I was a little late for the show—Ziggy Stardust was long gone when I discovered him—but Bowie’s influence on me is indelible.

His work influenced me as a writer and probably influenced, if subtly, my choice of a college major and the classes I took, among other things. How?

David Bowie is a lot like the poet T.S. Eliot

If you want to understand what Bowie’s lyrics are about (and Eliot’s poems), you’ve got to know a few things or look them up. Literature, philosophy, history, religion, the occult, and psychology are good places to start.

Take a look at the first verse of “Quicksand” (Hunky Dory, 1971):

I’m closer to the Golden Dawn
Immersed in Crowley’s uniform
Of imagery
I’m living in a silent film
Portraying
Himmler’s sacred realm
Of dream reality
I’m frightened by the total goal
Drawing to the ragged hole
And I ain’t got the power anymore
No I ain’t got the power anymore

At fourteen, I was sure Golden Dawn didn’t mean a lovely sunrise, but that was it. I had no idea who Crowley was. Himmler? I loved the music, and I knew all the words, but I didn’t understand even half of what he was talking, er, singing about.

Not that anyone does, really. But we try.

And I’ve read good things about Bowie’s most recent album, The Next Day. I watched a few videos. And I read some more.

Bowie has been silent, out of the public eye. No tours, no late night talk shows, no interviews. Just the release back in March.

Perhaps he is the antithesis to Marina Abramoviç in her performance The Artist is Present. And perhaps Bowie’s performance is The Artist is Not Present.

Perhaps, as Rick Moody notes in The Rumpus, his silence is a non-performance:

Now, Bowie, the artist who no longer has anything to prove, has indicated that he is unavailable for comment about The Next Day, because there is only the work, and anything beyond the work is sort of what this album is about . . .

Apparently by some miracle, however, he “persuaded David Bowie to part with a few words on the subject of this album.”

Forty-two words, to be exact.

And they remind me of my early Bowie kick, not the one with the drop-dead gorgeous punk rocker boyfriend, but the first one. The original kick, the introduction, the first and only crush I’ve ever had on any sort of celebrity. The one when I was fourteen and memorized all the words to all the songs and wondered what they meant.

And I picked up my guitar, dusted it off, tuned it up, and started to play again. Somehow, the ski-accident-damaged thumb is functioning without pain. So far.

But even if I can’t build up enough strength to play as I once did, no great matter. Nothing lost, much gained.

Forty-two lovely words to contemplate. Look them up, learn them if you don’t know them, and use them. Plus 111 additional words I plucked out of Moody’s 12,000-word article just because I like them.

Not all the words Bowie offered are so unusual

Violence, for example, is common. But how could it be used within the context of Bowie’s other words? What clue does it give to the subject matter of The Next Day? Is anything ever inviolate?

If you’re a blogger, you won’t likely be using chthonic any time soon. Or succubus, or pressgang, or transference. But if you take the time to look them up, you might find some interesting inspiration.

You’ll also find that some of them aren’t what you might guess, like mauer or glide or even trace, for which Moody quotes Derrida:

‘The trace is not a presence but is rather the simulacrum of a presence that dislocates, displaces, and refers beyond itself. The trace has, properly speaking, no place, for effacement belongs to the very structure of the trace.’

Don’t know who Derrida is? Click here. ;)

If you’re a creative writer, you might enjoy this exercise: write a short story that incorporates all forty-two words or forms of them.

Now take a look at the other 111 words or phrases in the list.

Look them up. Learn them. Or learn all their forms and uses if they’re not too unusual, like inert or fathom. Most of these don’t often show up in the blogosphere or on the average website, no matter how useful or reputable the site might be, but they’re good to know.

Every writer needs a good vocabulary

Even if you don’t use every word you know in your everyday writing, get in the habit of looking words up. Build your vocabulary and grow it. It’s easier to choose the right words for your intended meaning if you have plenty to choose from.

Writing is a craft and an art, after all. And the only way to improve it is to practice it. Kind of like the guitar.

If my thumb holds out, I’ll keep playing. And this time, I’ll take it well beyond the level I was at before: just good enough to do open mikes during my senior year of college.

But I’ve got some work ahead of me: Bowie didn’t get where he’s at by playing the same riffs over and over again and trying to output without any input. He studied. He learned. He practiced. He experimented. He succeeded. He failed. And he evolved proportionately.

Artists—and that includes writers—have to take in new material to put new material out. We have to study and learn and grow or we get stale. And we have to keep going. And going, because that’s what an artist does. And is. Like Bowie—at 66, still creating. What an inspiration.

Bowie’s 42 Words

Effigies

Indulgences

Anarchist

Violence

Chthonic

Intimidation

Vampyric

Pantheon

Succubus

Hostage

Transference

Identity

Mauer

Interface

Flitting

Isolation

Revenge

Osmosis

Crusade

Tyrant

Domination

Indifference

Miasma

Pressgang

Displaced

Flight

Resettlement

Funereal

Glide

Trace

Balkan

Burial

Reverse

Manipulate

Origin

Text

Traitor

Urban

Comeuppance

Tragic

Nerve

Mystification


111 more words for your vocabulary list

decadent

androgyne

persona

genre hopping

chameleon

spawn

archetype

acrimonious

messianic

appropriation

paranoiac

curried (as in to curry favor of someone)

astringent (used as a personality characteristic)

conceptual

amply

albeit

lexicon

intuitive

haunted

aftermath

spate

unassailable

adjudged

heathen

titan

behemoth

lackluster

brace

befitting

pathos

project (pro-JECT)

illuminate

provocative

lyrical

heft

insular

fetishize

penalize

carping

naiad

albatross

whipping boy

papal

ex post facto

skiffle

cohere

dystopic

palimpsest

pensioner (rare in US)

filigree

allegorical

elegiac

inert

feudal

ostensibly

reportorial

recoiling

relinquishment

poignance

schematic

indelible

inconstancy

admixed

repudiation

astute

imperturbable

facility (as in facile)

imagistic

celluloid

incautious

exegete

leitmotif

germane

schism

destitution

disaffiliation

ephemera

metonymy

portmanteau

harrowing

zenith

syncopations

osmotic

skein

primitivist

defilement

synesthetic

realpolitik

effacement

unvarnished

nadir

gnomic

residuum

simulacrum

machinations

fathom

triumphalism

arbiter

prescient

somnolent

canon (not cannon)

proem (not poem)

olfactory

permeable

ekphrasis

felicitous

contrarily

Nietzschean

martyrdom

annotation

chanson

Photo credit: AVRO

Do you actively work on building your vocabulary? Are you familiar with most of these words and, if so, do you use them in your writing? Comments are always welcome!

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