Words Matter

When my grandson, Tommy, was five, my daughter, Kristin, took him to buy school supplies for kindergarten. As they walked toward the store, he yelled out, “Look, Mom! They got all the A-holes out of Walmart!’

People walking to and from their cars cast disapproving glares her way.

She stooped down and asked, “Tommy, what did you say?”

“The A-holes. They got all the A-holes out of Walmart!”

Embarrassed, Kristin explained, “We don’t talk that way, Tommy.”

He looked confused.

“Show me what you mean,” she said.

Tommy pointed to the new Walmart sign. “See? All the A-holes, where the bird’s nests were, are gone.”


Clear communication is vital in both speaking and writing. Words matter.

I discovered the word “curvet” during our morning ritual when Rich and I try to guess the definition of Merriam Webster’s “Word of the Day.” Yes, it is now fully established that I am a Word Nerd.  I decided to use curvet in my WIP, Love’s Courage: “Suddenly, Shadow leapt into a curvet, landed, and stood stock still.”

My sentence containing curvet was in the section of Love’s Courage that I submitted to Terri Valentine for my second assignment in my Advanced Novel Writing course. In her edits, Terri’s note read, “curvet,? NOT SURE WHAT THIS IS.” I realized that I had two choices: eliminate the word, or further explain the word.

The definition of curvet is: a prancing leap of a horse in which the hind legs are raised just before the forelegs touch the ground. This definition described exactly what Shadow was doing in my mind, however, would I have to suspend the action to explain this to my reader?

Anytime I distance the reader from my story, I sacrifice the impact of the story. So, must curvet go? As much as I like introducing new words, or reintroducing seldom-used words, if it affects the reader’s experience of my story, it isn’t worth it.

On the other hand, I have expanded my own vocabulary through reading. As a child and teen, my voracious consumption of books introduced me to words and concepts that I would never have been exposed to otherwise. Even as an adult, I delight in finding unfamiliar words that broaden my understanding of life and experience.

This is a challenge for writers, especially in historical fiction where obsolete terms help embed the reader in the that era. Where would Regency romance writers be without dowager, a term most people didn’t fully understand until Downton Abbey?

During a critique session, my partners said they had never heard of the word tricorn.  I had used tricorn in Love’s Destiny and Love’s Spirit to aid my readers in envisioning the three-cornered hat worn during the America Revolution. Then, during my trip to Williamsburg, VA, I found out they didn’t call the hat a tricorn at that time, which presents a different quandary for a writer. So, in Love’s Courage, I refer to it as a “cocked hat” which was the term they did use at that time.









This is the dilemma writers face. Do we include authentic terminology that places the reader in the time period, or stick to contemporary vocabulary that will not give the reader pause and possibly interrupt the flow of the story?

I believe the answer is both. Include authentic vocabulary, but used in context with a sufficiently written explanation. That will enhance the setting, engage the reader, and introduce new vocabulary. I’m hoping my revision will do just that:

Suddenly, Shadow leapt into a curvet, landed, and stood stock still.

Shadow leapt into a curvet, hind legs raised then landing on his forelegs, and halted.


As readers, does the inclusion of an unfamiliar word interrupt the flow of the story for you?

As writers, have you encountered this dilemma in your work?


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