About the only tools necessary to practice the art of writing are paper and pencil or screen and keyboard. That’s the romantic view, at least. A more realistic perspective would include at least a dictionary, but even then we don’t often realize just what practical information a lexical entry can give us as writers and readers both.
Most of us have heard about the parts of speech, a traditional conceptual scheme that organizes words according to the way they are used grammatically in a particular sentence. Words, of course, are the first and most basic element in the craft of language. Each word can and must take on a certain grammatical role for meaning to be conveyed, and whenever we cannot account for the grammatical purpose of a word, we are obligated for the sake of being clear to revise the structure of the sentences we have first designed.
The dictionary gives us that grammatical information about every single word current in the language to do just that. Many words can be used as more than one part of speech: I can read a book, for example, and use the word as a noun; or I can book a reservation, and use the same word in another clause and context as a verb. Many dictionaries, college-level and above, go further with grammatical information and indicate whether a verb can be used transitively or intransitively (often employing, respectively, the abbreviations v.t. and v.i.) or both. Almost all such dictionaries include some system of telling us how to pronounce a word.
Readers of dictionaries, though, often overlook one more bit of helpful information, called etymology. Words come from somewhere (the etymo in the word etymology, for example, means true or real in Greek, and so the etymology of etymology is the study, the –ology, of the true or actual source of a word). These derivations can be a storehouse of images that we can use to build out our thoughts about an idea. It is common to overlook the etymology (usually assigned between hard brackets and often begun with the symbol “<”) because we think the information too academic to be practical. That, however, is a mistake.
Here, for example, is the etymology of the word mortgage as we might learn it from a lexical entry: [mortgage < Ofr, mort gage, < mort, dead + gage, pledge]. With a quick glance at the dictionary’s list of abbreviations, we learn that Ofr means Old French, and in that language the word mort meant dead and the word gage meant pledge. Behind our word mortgage, then, are the ideas of something given to mark a promise (a pledge) and the fulfillment (or death) of that promise when the last farthing, so to say, has been paid. This imagery continues in the word amortize, the calculating of principal and interest as we gradually pay down (or kill off) the original pledge.
The dictionary, then, is a treasure of materials from which to build images, not only with the definitions we primarily turn to it for, but also with the etymological information it gives. Knowing the history of the word mortgage, for example, we could prompt our imagination to conjure the idea of mortgaging one’s future, or worse, one’s hope or health—each carrying the added emotional strength that comes with the picture of putting something valuable under an obligation to someone or something else, with the attendant and poignant loss of freedom. What a word means depends much on its context, and when we use the meaning a word has in one set of circumstances and carry it over into another like this, we produce a metaphor (meta, meaning across in Greek, and phor meaning carry). Metaphors are images and we humans respond axiomatically to pictures and the worlds they suggest.
The term wordcraft refers to the skill with which we as writers and readers make use of the elements of language. Skill in designing language that accurately represents our ideas depends on three things: having enough words at our command to say exactly what we mean, knowing what a particular word means, and knowing too what it might suggest. The dictionary can help us with all three.