On crosswords and writing

Posted on April 4, 2010


Hey, Frank. What’s a four-letter word for ‘too bad’?
Hey Frank. What’s another word for ‘anticipate’?

I don’t know — okay?

I may have majored in English, worked as a writer for over 25 years, and now teach something called “College English” (although what its exact relationship is to the actual language I’ve yet to determine). And admittedly, when I was a kid I used to correct my friends’ grammar — especially the horrible tendency back then to say that something was “more better.” (And no, I don’t know why I had any friends either, but that’s a discussion for a different time.)

But  just because I use words a lot doesn’t mean I have any control over them.

Crossword puzzles, for instance, are complete mysteries to me. I do not know a five-letter word for “malice” nor a nine-letter word for “cantankerous,” although it’s entirely possible that I could have used them earlier in the day.

I’m also weak when it comes to headlines and titles — but I will lay claim to a reliable, if not always brilliant, way with captions and cutlines. But these have much of the work done for them by a graphic. Plus, they’re typically longer than headlines.

The fact is, I need to get a momentum going before the words start to pop into my head. Even then, they do so on a just-in-time basis. Not always the best words, but they’re generally adequate. Hell, sometimes they’re even pretty good. But it’s not like my entire vocabulary is sitting on display in my consciousness, like items in a well-stocked hardware store. I may not know an eleven-letter word meaning “useless, unavailing, futile,” but if I should happen to be writing about the federal Liberal party, then “ineffectual” will come to mind completely uninvited.

No, not uninvited. Unwanted? No. Unfinished?


Anyway, the point is, writing isn’t simply a matter of having a large vocabulary. And conversely, having a large vocabulary doesn’t make you a good writer.

Unbidden! That’s it. The word “ineffectual” came unbidden.

Um — right. So, where was I?

Screw it.

Just don’t ask me to help with any crossword puzzles, is all I’m saying.