Repurposing Words: Surprise Your Readers With Unusual Word Choices

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

Repurposing Words: Surprise Your Readers With Unusual Word Choices

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!