When my husband went back to school to become a chef, I had visions of dining daily on home-cooked gourmet meals. While that may not have happened exactly as planned (a word to the wise: chefs don’t cook at home), my vocabulary at least has been well-fed. Words like vol-au-vent, panna cotta, semi freddo and brown butter have found their way into my brain.
Words are so many things to me: the worker-bees of communication, miniature works of art, capsules of history, subjects of debate, and the way I earn a living. When I learn a new word—and I’m always learning—I like to get to know it better, consider its etymology, understand its grammatical role and then gently introduce it to its pals and the sentence I’ll be using it in.
It’s a bit like tasting a new wine. The Chef—who’s taken a few sommelier classes—wouldn’t dream of serving a new wine without first tasting it, knowing about the terroir of its region and the history of its winemaker, and learning which foods it can be paired with.
Aside from the tasty terms I’ve absorbed from the Chef, I learn new words primarily through reading. Here are a few words I’ve picked up recently:
- Stochastic: Refers to systems whose behaviour is intrinsically non-deterministic, and is used in fields of mathematics, artificial intelligence and science. From J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition.
- Greige: An icky nail polish colour that was trendy last year and is now (hopefully and thankfully) out of fashion. From InStyle, circa 2010.
- Social movements: As defined by Sidney Tarrow, social movements are collective challenges [to elites, authorities, other groups or cultural codes] by people with common purposes and solidarity in sustained interactions with elites, opponents and authorities. For example, the global justice movement or the women’s movement. From a textbook I indexed for a Canadian publisher.
- Aligoté: A type of grape used to make white wine, traditionally in house blends (or what the Chef and I call “plonk”). From Natalie Maclean’s Red, White and Drunk All Over (my number 1 reading pick this summer–I highly recommend it).
I would argue that the best way to build a gourmet vocabulary is by reading. A lot. Another way is, of course, through research for your writing. If one of your characters is, say, an art historian, you should be able to use words specific to that profession—and use them effectively and accurately. Improper or awkward usage is the hallmark of a word that has been hastily found through a word processor’s thesaurus function.
And finally, you can expand your vocabulary simply by listening to the people around you and being open to the great expanse of knowledge in the world. A curiosity about language and how it relates to real-life experiences is a writer’s most important tool.
What delectable words have you discovered recently?