Writing and research are inseparable. Even something as mundane as what supermarket chain is popular in Texas (H.E.B.) needs to be accurate, or you will lose a Texan fan (or twenty). Beyond researching historical, geographic, scientific, etc. facts, the particular words we chose are the tools of our trade.

Enter the Rabbit Hole

We’ve all clicked on a website or article and followed each link and tangent until we realize we’ve blown several hours. Some call this procrastination, but I prefer calling it research. In choosing what to write for Books and Writers this week, I decided to crack open a book that has been sitting on my shelf for years. While frequently using my dictionary, thesaurus, AP Stylebook, Chicago Manual of Style and of course, the classic Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, I never thought to explore my Reader’s Digest Illustrated Reverse Dictionary.[1] And so this morning I slid into the rabbit hole.

Why a Reverse Dictionary?

Until now, I’ve used my thesaurus when I needed the perfect synonym. To do that, I must use one synonym to find another. But what if I block on the lead word? For example, many scenes in my novel take place in a dining hall, but because the dining hall is in a monastery, I use the word “refectory” instead. What and how the characters are eating are important plot elements, so I needed to look at all aspects of food and eating. I even asked a  friend who is a wine connoisseur what would go well with Beef Wellington.

To quote from the flyleaf of the reverse dictionary, “With a garden-variety dictionary, you look up the word to find its meaning. With (this book) you do just the opposite: you look up the meaning to find its word. Start with an idea, a description, a similar word, and follow it to the exact word you need.”

For Example

To try out my reverse dictionary, I looked up “eat.” I used the word “devour” in my novel but learned the act of eating greedily is also “gormandize.” Other interesting terms related to eating included:

  • COMESTIBLE or ESCULENT mean something is edible or fit to eat.
  • CRAPULENT means gluttonous. (I leave the connection to your imagination.)
  • TRENCHERMAN is a person who enjoys food and eats abundantly
  • GOURMET is one who enjoys fine cooking or eating, while a GOURMAND is a person who enjoys good or excessive eating (a trencherman, I guess)
  • PHAGO is the word root or word part meaning eating. It is common in medical terms like “phagocytosis”, which literally means the condition or action (osis) of eating or engulfing (phago) cells (cyto). Translation: a blood cell that devours the bad guys.

Cross References and Charts

See also: feeding. Here I found descriptions of animals that eat certain things, such as:

  • Anteaters are MYRMECOPHAGOUS
  • Feeding on many foods is to be POLYPHAGUS

Just looking at the charts will blow an hour. I had no idea angels had ranks, but on page 24, I discovered the highest-ranking angel was a seraphim, followed by cherubim. So, if I want to portray that cute little baby angel with a bow and arrow, a cherubim would not do. I thought a mighty angel warrior like the Archangel Michael, would have headed the list, but instead archangels lie second from the bottom of the list. (Of course, the list itself begs the question of who devised it and on what basis?) … And there’s another research rabbit hole.

Ain’t writing fun?

[1] Readers Digest Reverse Illustrated Dictionary, , Pleasantville, New York/Montreal. John Ellison Kahn, MA, DPhil ©1990