Monday, January 11, 2021

Print Dictionary: A Useful Addition to a Writer’s Library

Sometimes, we don’t know the exact word we want so we look it up online. While online dictionaries are a great resource, I’ve noticed they sometimes offer the briefest of definitions. Not so long ago, I was reading a book that used the word recognizance when the writer meant reconnaissance. I’m not sure if the writer didn’t know the meaning of the two words, or if an editor changed it and the author didn’t notice the change, or if they were both unaware. 

Recognizance and reconnaissance both stem from a French word “reconoissance" which means recognition, but they have completely different meanings. Recognizance has to do with the court system. When someone is arrested, a judge may are may not set a bond. If no bond is set, the person is released on his or her own recognizance. Basically, the judge has decided you are trustworthy and will appear in court when called. There will be a penalty if you don't keep your word and appear in court, but the judge believes you will. This word dates back to the 14th century so it's been around a long time.

The word reconnaissance, on the other hand, doesn't show up in the English vocabulary until 1810. This is the time frame of the Napoleonic wars which makes sense because
reconnaissance originally referred to a military survey to gain information about the enemy. It can also mean gathering information.

Reign in or Rein in?

I’ve frequently seen “reign in” used to when the writer meant “rein in.” The verb “reign” means to hold royal office, be a monarch, or maybe hold as much power as a monarch. A character cannot “reign in his emotions.” You would in essence be saying, “George held royal office in his emotions.”

The correct word phrase is “rein in” his temper because a rein is one of the leather straps attached to a horse’s bridle and used by the rider to control the horse. To stop a horse, the rider pulls on the reins, thus “reining in” the horse. If you want your character to hide or control his emotions, you would write, “George reined in his emotions.”

Why a Print Dictionary?

It never hurts to research the meaning of a word in a reliable print dictionary, especially if you're unsure of the correct usage. A reliable dictionary will give you extensive background on a word, when it entered the English language, examples of how it is used, and all the various meanings of a word. The English language is highly adaptable and there are words used every day that didn’t exist 20 years ago. Or they had a completely different meaning.

The only cure I know for expanding your vocabulary is to read, read, read! Need I say, all kinds of stories? Just be sure they are well-written. Embrace the English language, or whatever language you use when writing your stories.