Are You a Language Collector?

John Marsden begins his book Everything I Know About Writing by talking about the importance of being a collector of language. Writers should notice language and appreciate it since it is language that we work with.

The first time I read this book, it inspired to take more notice of language and keep a notebook where I could record language that grabbed me. I’d write down overheard dialogue, sentences and phrases people said, quotes from movies, and lines from books. Sometimes these notes would inspire a story or be part of a story.

Marsden’s book also inspired me to write a personal history of my involvement with language. This is something he suggests the reader do for a fun exercise. Here is my updated personal history with language:

The first memories I have of words that were significant to me are nicknames. My nickname when I was small was Motormouth. I grew out of it though and at school I was always described as quiet. I wonder if being called Motormouth had something to do with it.

Other nicknames I had were Dragonlady and Dressina. I liked them because they spoke of my South Korean heritage. I’m not sure if this is true but I grew up believing Dressina was a South Korean plant and the name meant Dragonlady. My middle name is Desireé so I also liked how I had three D names.

My dad tells a story of me coming home from my first day at school in tears. Apparently a boy had called me Chinese and I was upset. Dad cheered me up by telling me to tell him I was Kore-oz. Apparently I liked that. I think I remember being proud of having that word.

One of the nicknames I liked was Nooni-Noodle. (Nooni rhymes with my name.) A cousin called me this because my favourite food was Maggi 2-minute chicken noodles. She’d shorten it to Noon. And then my sister started calling me Nuj.

I also liked the nicknames at school. I liked how the boys were generally called by their last name or a variation of it.

In fact, now that I think of it, I’ve always had a fascination with names. I wrote lists of names all the time. I even went through the telephone book to write lists of surnames I liked. I made up my own names and even tried making up my own language.

Children’s picture books are another source of my earliest memories with words that struck me. There were two books I asked mum to read most. The Three Little Kittens and The Balloon Tree.

I remember when mum read me The Three Little Kittens and came to a part where there was a mouse. ‘Pitter patter pitter patter.’ I asked mum if she could read it again. Then when she did, I asked if could read it. I liked how the words sounded and how they made me picture a scurrying mouse.

I remember liking the poem in The Balloon Tree: Moon balloon, blossom for me.

I enjoyed nursery rhymes and the sounds of certain words. Cosi cosi was my favourite Italian word. Momo was my favourite Japanese word in primary school. Our class liked that one. It means peach. We’d sing, ‘Millions of momo, momo for me.’ My favourite Japanese word in high school was dakara. Looks like I had a thing for rhyme and repetition.

In grade 4, I remember the first time I really connected with words. It was a poem called Heat. I think it was written by a school girl about suffering on a hot day at school. I was struck by how accurately the words described something I knew: the feeling of sticking to the chair with sweat. Then I was struck by how well I could picture something I didn’t know: the dreading of the bus ride home. I walked home from school, but I could feel that dread.

Besides these memories, language doesn’t seem to be something I’ve taken much notice of. I do like the language jokes of comedians and I like the gems that can come from footy commentators. They use language in a new way. It’s original and fresh and it delights.

Some people are naturals at using language in fresh ways. I think of my brother who is quick, snappy, and funny. He told the story of a cow stuck in mud. People had tried different things to get the cow out but nothing worked. They were thinking of getting a crane, but then a farmer picked up two sticks and ran them down the cow’s tail. This is how my brother put it: ‘He went zing and no joke the cow would have beaten Phar Lap.’ If I was telling this story, Phar Lap wouldn’t have crossed my mind, but it crossed my brother’s mind and it made for a brilliant image.

I love collecting these kinds of fresh uses of language, and I do think it’s important to take notice of language as a writer. But looking back, I’m not like Marsden. I have no interest in collecting dictionaries. The English language is not my number one hobby. As a writer, should it be? Or can we be more interested in some other aspect of writing?

What do you think?

Are you a language collector? Try keeping a notebook to collect language in.
Share some of the words, phrases, sentences you’ve collected and why they mean something to you.
How important do you think it is for writers to take notice of language? Should language be our number one hobby or can we be more interested in some other aspect of writing? What other aspects are you most interested in?
Write your own personal history of your involvement with language.
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