Let’s Have a Few Words by Jennifer Ziegler
Hello, readers. I join you here today with a confession: I, Jennifer Ziegler, am a ginormous word nerd. And my new middle grade novel, Worser, is a love letter to words and the people like me who adore them.
The book’s main character, Worser, shares this aspect with me. He and I both have favorite words and words we loathe, and we enjoy word games the way others enjoy poker or tennis. We differ in our word-revering approaches, though. While I write books and articles, he collects words in a lexicon he calls his Masterwork.
Both Worser and I feel that words are taken for granted and that wordplay is much maligned. We would very much like to rectify this problem. (Rectify being a word that I dislike because it reminds me too much of rectum.) Please hear our pleas. (Wordplay intended.)
Like humans, words all have a history and culture. Also like us, they evolve and change over time. They even have personality.
Here’s an example: Let’s say you’re hosting a fun gathering. The word party will do, but why not find the perfect, most precise word?
Will there be dancing? If so, it could be a shindig, ball, or hop. (And if people will be shouting “yee-haw,” you might have a hoedown or hootenanny in the works.)
Will guests hold fine china or crystal glasses and wear their swankiest attire? If so, perhaps soiree or gala would be the best choice.
Does your gathering mainly involve food? If so, depending on the spread and setting, it could be a banquet, feast, picnic, barbecue, luncheon, tea, or clambake.
Will it be a stately affair, with lofty discussions of art and politics? Try salon or colloquium.
And do you expect your gathering to get rowdy? Then I would suggest bash – if only for the play on words.
Perhaps all this has you feeling confused. Well, don’t be! Instead, be bewildered, baffled, befuddled, puzzled, perplexed, flabbergasted, or dumbfounded. (I, myself, adore bumfuzzled – although when I used it in a manuscript once, it was flagged by a copyeditor as a possible obscenity.)
Collecting words – in a lexicon or in your head – can enrich your life. Literally. They are currency that can help you communicate your thoughts more clearly and vividly. Also … words are fun! As word-people, we tend to treat words with reverence. We know their power, and that’s a good thing. But words are also playthings – something else my main character and I understand.
Word games and wordplay can help us, as writers and thinkers, become more intimate with the tools we use. They can make us feel more skilled and at ease with language and raise our confidence in our abilities. And there are all kinds of options – from puns to anagrams to Mad-Libs to Wordle and its copycats. You can even think up your own.
For example, we’ve heard of a murder of crows and a pride of lions. But what might we call a group of word-loving nerds?
One way to approach this is to try word-association. What are some objects, actions, or descriptive terms you relate with word nerds?
You might, for example, say a pocket of word nerds – harking back to terms like pocket dictionaries, pocket thesauruses, and the quintessential nerd-indicator, the pocket-protector.
Or you might say a squint of word nerds, alluding to folks like me who make faces while reading or deep in thought.
Or you might call us a wonder of word nerds because the word wonder is made up of letters we find in word nerd.
Using words in new and unique ways can help them seem less daunting – especially to young learners. In fact, playing with words is probably a huge reason why I became a writer. It allowed me to get comfortable with words, tame them, befriend them. These days, on occasions when writing feels like a slog, I do a word game (or 2 or 12) and rediscover that joy. I even make up games – some of which ended up in the novel.
In short, if we want to create, it helps to think creatively. Even if you don’t write a novel or create a lexicon, becoming more familiar with words or doing word games can stretch your brain, reveal patterns, and allow you to make new connections.
So why not let out your inner word nerd? Join us! Find those special and pitch-perfect words. Play. Try. Think.
Jennifer Ziegler is an author of books for young adults and middle graders, including How Not to Be Popular, Revenge of the Flower Girls, and Revenge of the Teacher’s Pets. She is on the faculty of Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA program on Writing for Children and Young Adults. Like Worser’s title character, she is a lover of words, word play, puzzles, libraries, and bookstores. Unlike Worser, she was never sent to the principal’s office. Jennifer lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, author Chris Barton.
In this middle grade novel, a socially awkward introvert with an unfortunate nickname—and a love for words—must summon the courage to turn the page on his own story. After his mother suffers a stroke, William Wyatt Orser or “Worser,” finds himself involved in his school’s literary club, where he learns his most prized possession—his epic word notebook—might be the key to making new friends and earning the new moniker—Worder.