Repurposing Words: Surprise Your Readers With Unusual Word Choices

by | Sep 12, 2011 | Creative Writing Craft and Techniques, Grammar and Usage | 14 comments

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Who says a noun always has to act like a noun? And who says a verb always has to be so…verby? Some writers have a fascinating ability to repurpose words and use them in new ways.

Examples of creative word usage abound in The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer. This novel is first set in Paris on the brink of World War II. The young Jewish protagonist, Andras, learns he must quit school and return to his home in Hungary. He’s bummed out. When he gets to Hungary, he thinks, “Budapest was cobwebbed with memories…”

Most of us think of the word cobweb as a noun. “Look at those cobwebs! That corner is full of cobwebs!” However, Merriam-Webster notes a lesser-known usage of cobwebbed as an adjective. Few of us would say, “Look at that cobwebbed corner.” It feels awkward.

But in Ms. Orringer’s hands, cobwebbed is a revelation. Could she have written that Budapest was full of memories? Of course.

But cobwebbed is so much more powerful and evocative of Andras’s frame of mind. First, cobwebbed is more visual than full. Second, it’s more specific. Third, it evokes age—something forgotten, despairing, and maybe a touch repulsive. It also provides some eerie foreshadowing for what could, and does, happen to this young man during the Holocaust.

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Another example of an unusual word choice: Andras thinks of his mother, whom he has not seen for years, and he remembers her sewing box and “the round blue tin that held a minestrone of buttons.”

According to Merriam-Webster, minestrone is a type of soup. That’s it. But Orringer repurposes and condenses the word into a minimetaphor (with the underlying comparison, “the buttons were [like] minestrone soup”).

Is a description of buttons necessary to the story? No, but it really puts the reader into the mind of the character and creates a strong visual. Imagine if Orringer had said “various” or “different colored” buttons. Borrring. Minestrone is what hits home.

Caution: Don’t Overdo It

Now, we must provide a word of caution. Ms. Orringer’s story is a 600-page novel. Such creative word choices are not sprinkled on every page or in every chapter. To avoid puzzling readers with challenging word usage, or, worse, irritating them with constant deviations from the norm, writers must consider such choices carefully and intersperse them in their writing like an occasional midnight snack. Sometimes, one instance in a chapter or scene where the writer turns a word’s ordinary usage on its head is all that’s needed to make your work stand out.

Leave us a comment (just click on “comments” to join in)! Use one of these words in a nontraditional syntax (that is, goof off with them)! And if you’re feeling really inspired, try using all of them! 

 

Umbrella

Brick

Knit

Pinch

Apple

Foam

Easy

Hinge

 

14 Comments

  1. GreenStreet

    Her mother’s hug umbrellaed her from the chaos of the street.

    All the fruitcake was bricked on the corner table.

    She approached the notes of the scale as if she was knitting, stitch by stich, note by note, making a seam of sound.

    That’s all I got!

    Reply
  2. Jax

    “No, thank you, Gram.” Susan waved the pie away. Delicious as it was, after three slices, she was appled out.

    The ants worked all day, bricking their dirt clods higher and higher as they built their network below the earth.

    Reply
  3. John Saint Jones

    (THIS MIGHT NOT BE WHAT YOU’RE LOOKING FOR, BUT…)
    The stiff was a large, buxom woman, splayed out on the kitchen floor between the ice box and an oven left on for the night.
    She was ugly, but had a nice rack, too nice.
    It looked like she might have had one of those new fangled boob jobs, except one side was bigger.
    I pulled a blackened pan out of the oven and sat it on the chrome fitted table.
    I was hungry.
    In the pan was a BRICK, as capable of being eaten as the dame was of eating it.
    I sat down and reached for a red delicious APPLE, but something began to PINCH in my mind.
    Like a beige fiber KNIT into a white sheet, something was out of place.
    What was it?
    Last night, two blocks from here, a small man wearing a hat and dark glasses passed me on the street.
    His clothes were loose fitting, as if he wore them as an UMBRELLA against a sprinkling of possible witnesses.
    He smelled of apples, or apple blossoms, and his hips HINGED as he walked.
    I reached again for the apple. It seemed light, but I bit into it eagerly.
    On the shelf were two mixing bowls from a set of four.
    The missing bowls were about the same two sizes as the skirt’s breasts.
    The apple had no taste; it was made of FOAM.
    I left the building, and headed for the spot on the sidewalk where I had seen the small man.
    Something kept telling me this should be EASY, easy as some kind of pie, some American pie.
    I stood there for half an hour, thinking about pie, until a passing fire truck reminded me of apples.
    Oh crap! I forgot to turn that oven off.
    And my stomach hurts.

    Reply
  4. Carol A. Stephen

    Snap, Lock, Launch

    I came upon an appled wood where
    trees knit roots, knotted to form canopy
    they umbrella’d faint fern and flower
    pinching rain into veins of leaf

    Under the foamed mulch of moss
    and broken bark, flailed from the trunk
    a trap-jaw ant hinges his mandible
    open, easy-wide and snap-lock ready

    130 seconds to catapult intruder
    like a bricked missile into harm’s way.

    Carol A. Stephen
    Sept. 13, 2011

    Reply
    • Writers Relief Staff

      Carol, thank you for sharing this with us! What a gorgeous interpretation of our prompt!

      Reply
  5. Carol A. Stephen

    Thank you for your kind words!

    Reply
  6. Grace Brooks

    One sunny day I sat in my worn rocking chair under a shade umbrella. I carrefully set aside my knitting and looked around. From across the street my nostrils picked out the aroma of a freshly baked apple pie; down the street came the noise of another neighbour laying brick for a wall.
    Across the street a couple took it easy in nylon lawn chairs.

    Reply
  7. lysious

    Thanks for this. Just encouraged to be more creative with something I already love to do-using words in an unusual way to create a honey of impression on the reader’s mind. I think captivating an audience is sometimes hinged on the clever use of words that leaves readers foamed in a mentally visible atmosphere of the writer’s mind.

    Reply
  8. Writers Relief Staff

    This was a very difficult exercise! Thanks so much for sharing your words with us!

    Reply
  9. susie

    Adie knew the knife was dull, but there was no fixing that now. She could not easily grasp it, her fingers bent with arthritis until they looked like cobweb joints. It was too painful to think about the time and strength it would take to sharpen the knife against the old whet stone in the drawer. Balancing the blade on the tough hide of the apple no longer fresh, she leaned into the action of the knife. It made its way, slicing the apple down to the counter, only the last shred of peel hinging the fruit.

    Reply
    • Writers Relief Staff

      Susie, we particularly love what you did with “hinge.” Thanks for taking part in our challenge!

      Reply
  10. Melinda L.

    His comforting words made a protective umbrella against the sorrow that poured down on her.

    The doors of her heart unhinged and opened at the warmth of his smile.

    She was so angry that her arguement came out as an unending knitted pattern of words on a circular needle.

    I’ll have to think on the others. Great exercise!

    Reply
  11. Marie

    Rest wrapped the shards of her mind in cotton gauze. Yesterday’s memories flitted at the corners, their jagged edges not cutting through.

    Reply
  12. Jaime Snell

    Thoughts of that time in her life knitted through her memory, bit by bit, squares of the past melded together to form a quilt of her history. While the mis-mashed patterns of those moments in time resembled a menagerie of different colored bricks, somehow the chaos of those segmented memories connected together in a beautiful assemblance.

    Reply

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