I used to have a book called The Highly Selective Dictionary for the Extraordinarily Literate. Where is that? Do I still have…?

There it is, on a shelf next to my desk tucked between a copy of the U.S. Army Survival Manual (my pragmatic desert island book choice) and Dictionary of Word Origins. I hate to admit it but, thanks to the Internet, I don’t really reference these books anymore. That makes me sad, but there it is—the 21st Century!

Blowing a thickness of dust off the top of it, I flip through The Highly Selective Dictionary for the Extraordinarily Literateand pick out at random:


a mistake to be corrected, especially an error in a printed book

Hm. I actually really did pick that at random and now I feel like I really should have known that one. I mean, if not me, who, right?


laugh impudently or mockingly; jeer, deride

That I should have run across by now in an Ed Greenwood book, at least, no?

Alas, I hope it doesn’t surprise you, but I don’t know all the words!

Author John Grisham wrote, “There are three types of words: words we know, words we should know, and words nobody knows. Forget those in the third category and use restraint with those in the second.”

I disagree with some of his advice. Don’t set aside any word, especially just because it’s too “hard” or obscure, or even outdated. If it’s precisely the right word for that precise moment, that’s the word you need. If most or even all of your readers are sent to the dictionary, congratulations, you’ve educated people!

I have an editor friend who says that he’ll allow an author to send him to the unabridged dictionary once per book. If I had to set a rule for myself, as an editor, I’d make it more like a three-strikes rule. But I don’t really have that rule. I can tell when authors are showing off, need to close the thesaurus and get back to storytelling, or are in some way disconnecting from their audiences, and then I’ll do my best to intervene the way a good editor should. But ultimately I like to be sent—at least occasionally—to the unabridged dictionary, or at least my dictionary app, when a word comes along that I’ve never seen before.

I’d revise John Grisham’s advice to read: “There are three types of words: words almost everyone knows, words more people should know, and words almost nobody knows. Don’t be afraid of words in the second category and use one from the third category when it’s the only or best word for the moment.”

Yeah, I like to see new words, and lately, I’ve been saving a few good ones. I didn’t jot down where I saw all of them, so some are sadly devoid of context, but how many of these do you know?


relating to or having the symptoms of cachexia.


weakness and wasting of the body due to severe chronic illness.

Fun for pre-medicine fantasy cultures, yeah? It sounds like something an old Hobbit would die from.


a work of fiction centered on a lone, private inventor who gets into adventures in pursuit of or as a result of, one of his inventions

We need to bring this genre back. I mean, we need to. Now.


“cultural Bolshevism” or “art Bolshevism”—coined by Nazis to impugn “decadent” art.

This one I got from George Orwell and his essay “Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali” and I love it. Even with its clearly awful intent and origin I intend to use it, ironically, for the rest of my life.


lacking sense, lacking in initiative, a dense person

This I noted in the short story “Chloroform” in the collection Carp Fishing on Valium by Graham Parker. Is this a British thing? It might be an example of that quote often (but apparently incorrectly) attributed to George Bernard Shaw: “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.”


the period “between the wars,” particularly World War I and World War II

How did I not know this one? Feels like I should have known this one. No idea where I ran across it.


A balinger, or ballinger, was a type of small, sea-going vessel. It was swift and performed well under both sail and oars. It was probably developed in Bayonne for hunting whales.

This one was in a fantasy novel I was editing. I don’t really know boats, off-hand, and ended up having to rely on Wikipedia for that definition, but okay… now I know.


“Combine narcissism with nationalism, and you get a deadly phenomenon that political scientists call ressentiment (French for resentment): the conviction that one’s nation or civilization has a historical right to greatness despite its lowly status, which can only be explained by the malevolence of an internal or external foe.”

That definition comes from the brilliant must-read The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker. There’s a word for our times, eh?


made of or likened to marble

I ran across this beauty in an edit, used to describe a woman’s shoulder.

Yeah. If you’re going to send me to the dictionary, be that brilliant.


1 Architecture a pointed or Gothic arch. one of the diagonal groins or ribs of a vault. a thing having the profile of an ogive, especially the head of a projectile or the nose cone of a rocket. 2 Statistics a cumulative frequency graph.

This one was in the science fiction novel Wine of the Dreamers by John D. MacDonald, in which it does indeed describe the shape of a rocket’s nose cone:

It ripped up through the tent, slowly gaining speed, profiling the tent to its ogive nose, tearing the tent from the towers, slipping through it, igniting it with the fierce tail flame.

And if any two authors belong in the same general category it’s the Johns D. MacDonald and Grisham—so much for the latter’s advice.


a knot or coil of hair arranged on the back of a woman’s head.

This one was in a story by a student in one of my Pulp Fiction Workshops, which goes to show how smart people who take those courses are. I think I remember it in an episode of Cheers, too, in reference to Lilith Sternen-Crane’s trademark tight hairdo. I guess I’m just not up on all the fancy ladies’ hairdos, but the point is: I write and edit fiction. I have to be “up on” a little bit (at least) of everything!


noun (plural theogonies) the genealogy of a group or system of gods.

This one (the plural, actually: theogonies) stuck in my family tree while I was reading an article on Byron in the Weekly Standard.

See? Even people who are smart enough to read articles on Byron from the Weekly Standard don’t know all the words.


the adjective form of casuist; a person who uses clever but unsound reasoning, especially in relation to moral questions; a sophist. a person who resolves moral problems by the application of theoretical rules to particular instances.

You had to know there would be another one from George Orwell, or in this case, from an article about George Orwell.


noun: the presence of two or more voices or expressed viewpoints in a text or other artistic work.

Remember what I said about the perfect word for this specific sentence? This one I found in the article: “Of Philip K. Dick, Reflexivity, and Shifting Realities: Organising (Writing) in Our Post-Industrial Society” by Christian De Cock.


adjective 1 rich in, covered with, or producing oil; oily or greasy. 2 exaggeratedly and distastefully complimentary; obsequious: candidates made the usual oleaginous speeches in the debate.

Why wouldn’t I run across a word I’ve never see before in an article called “The New Reading Environment:  Each this is not to say or in other words a dull sword wielded against willful misunderstanding”?

So hey—first of all, don’t feel bad if you’re reading anything, not just some scholarly work but any old corny 1950s sci-fi novel, and there’s a word that perplexes you. Look it up. Learn. Maybe adopt it for your own personal lexicon. And second, don’t be afraid to occasionally challenge other people to do the same. After all, no one knows all the words, but why not share in the joy of discovery that language can be?

And then there’s taking it to the next level, and that’s introducing new words yourself. Here’s one I’ve actually been trying to have added to the English language myself:


adjective; the remaining example of a group of things that is somehow defective or unwanted: “Oh great, I’m stuck with the defuncto chair.”

My wife made up that one. Use it, please—spread the word! In this case, literally.


—Philip Athans

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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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