First, we pick a random word from the dictionary. Let’s go with “narwhal.”
NAR·WHAL: noun. a small arctic whale, Monodon monoceros, the male of which has a long, spirally twisted tusk extending forward from the upper jaw. Also, nar·wal, nar·whale. Origin: 1650–60; < Scandinavian; compare Norwegian, Swedish, Danish nar (h) val, reshaped from Old Norse nāhvalr, equivalent to nār corpse + hvalr whale1 ; allegedly so called because its skin resembles that of a human corpse
We now list all the unique words:
arctic, corpse, Danish, extending, forward, corpse, jaw, long, male, Monodon monoceros, Norwegian, resembles, Scandinavian, skin, small, spirally, Swedish, tusk, twisted, upper whale
… then look up each one. This does take some time, and generates a lot of text, but it’s also educational and (I think) fun:
- arctic = ADJECTIVE. 1. (often initial capital letter) of, pertaining to, or located at or near the North Pole: the arctic region. 2. coming from the North Pole or the arctic region: an arctic wind. 3. characteristic of the extremely cold, snowy, windy weather north of the Arctic Circle; frigid; bleak: an arctic winter. 4. suitable for use in the arctic: arctic boots. 5. extremely cold in manner, atmosphere, etc.: a look of arctic disdain. NOUN. 6. (often initial capital letter) the region lying north of the Arctic Circle or of the northernmost limit of tree growth; the polar area north of the timber line. 7. arctics, warm, waterproof overshoes. Origin: 1350–1400; < Latin arcticus < Greek arktikós northern, literally, of the Bear, equivalent to árkt ( os ) bear ( see Ursa Major) + -ikos -ic; replacing Middle English artik < Middle French artique < Latin
- corpse = NOUN. 1. a dead body, usually of a human being. 2. something no longer useful or viable: rusting corpses of old cars. 3. Obsolete. a human or animal body, whether alive or dead.
- Danish = ADJECTIVE. 1. of or pertaining to the Danes, their country, or their language. NOUN. 2. a North Germanic language, the language of Denmark, closely related to Norwegian, Swedish, and Icelandic. Abbreviation: Dan., Dan. 3. (sometimes lowercase) Danish pastry.
This procedure is recombinant; after you complete this step, you can look up all of the words in these definitions, and so on. But I usually stop at this point because
- time is finite;
- we already have more than enough words;
- if you keep going, at some point the technique is no longer constrained (running the process infinitely will result in your having every word in English to work with; i.e., the technique gets weaker each time it’s repeated).
Since we’re not repeating the process, I don’t bother to break up the definitions into their individual unique words; I just strip out all of the dictionary metatext (parts of speech, definition numbers, etc.) and run all the different meanings together. And so our (massive) vocabulary list now looks like this:
of, pertaining to, or located at or near the North Pole: the arctic region. coming from the North Pole or the arctic region: an arctic wind. characteristic of the extremely cold, snowy, windy weather north of the Arctic Circle; frigid; bleak: an arctic winter. suitable for use in the arctic: arctic boots. extremely cold in manner, atmosphere, etc.: a look of arctic disdain. the region lying north of the Arctic Circle or of the northernmost limit of tree growth; the polar area north of the timber line. arctics, warm, waterproof overshoes. northern, literally, of the Bear. a dead body, usually of a human being. something no longer useful or viable: rusting corpses of old cars. a human or animal body, whether alive or dead. of or pertaining to the Danes, their country, or their language. a North Germanic language, the language of Denmark, closely related to Norwegian, Swedish, and Icelandic. Danish pastry. to stretch out; draw out to the full length: He extended the measuring tape as far as it would go. to stretch, draw, or arrange in a given direction, or so as to reach a particular point, as a cord, wall, or line of troops. to stretch forth or hold out, as the arm or hand: to extend one’s hand in greeting. to place at full length, especially horizontally, as the body or limbs. to increase the length or duration of; lengthen; prolong: to extend a visit. to be or become extended; stretch out in length, duration, or in various or all directions. to reach, as to a particular point. to increase in length, area, scope, etc. to come into an extended attitude. toward or at a place, point, or time in advance; onward; ahead: to move forward; from this day forward; to look forward. toward the front: Let’s move forward so we can hear better. into view or consideration; out; forth: He brought forward several good suggestions. toward the bow or front of a vessel or aircraft. ahead. directed toward a point in advance; moving ahead; onward: a forward motion. being in a condition of advancement; well-advanced: It was quite forward in the season when we finished our planting. ready, prompt, or eager. presumptuous, impertinent, or bold: a rude, forward child. situated in the front or forepart: the forward part of the ship. a player stationed in advance of others on a team. a lineman. either of two players stationed in the forecourt. something bought, as a security, for future delivery. to send forward; transmit, especially to a new address: to forward a letter. to advance or help onward; promote: The training will help to forward your career. to advance or play a mechanism, recording tape, cassette, etc., in the forward direction: to find a musical selection without forwarding through the whole cassette. of, pertaining to, characteristic of, or having the nature of people: human frailty. consisting of people: the human race. of or pertaining to the social aspect of people: human affairs. sympathetic; humane: a warmly human understanding. a human being. either of two bones, the mandible or maxilla, forming the framework of the mouth. the part of the face covering these bones, the mouth, or the mouth parts collectively: My jaw is swollen. jaws, anything resembling a pair of jaws or evoking the concept of grasping and holding: the jaws of a gorge; the jaws of death. one of two or more parts, as of a machine, that grasp or hold something: the jaws of a vise. any of two or more protruding parts for attaching to or meshing with similar parts. Also called throat. a forked piece at the end of a gaff, fitting halfway around the mast. to talk; chat; gossip. to scold or use abusive language. to scold. a swelling wave of water; billow. to surge, splash, or dash forward, as in waves. to pour or splash (liquid). having considerable linear extent in space: a long distance; a long handle. having considerable duration in time: a long conversation; a long while. extending, lasting, or totaling a number of specified units: eight miles long; eight hours long. containing many items or units: a long list. requiring a considerable time to relate, read, etc.: a long story. extending beyond normal or moderate limits: a long, boring speech. experienced as passing slowly, because of the difficulty, tedium, or unpleasantness involved: long years of study. reaching well into the past: a long memory. the longer of two or the longest of several: the long way home; a brick with the long side exposed. taking a long time; slow: He’s certainly long getting here. forward-looking or considering all aspects; broad: to take a long view of life. intense, thorough, or critical; seriously appraising: a long look at one’s past mistakes. having an ample supply or endowment of something: to be long on advice; to be long on brains. having a considerable time to run, as a promissory note. distant or remote in time: a long date. extending relatively far: a man with a long reach. being higher or taller than usual: long casement windows. being against great odds; unlikely: a long chance. mixed or diluted with a large amount of soda, seltzer, etc.: highballs, collinses, and other long drinks. of more than ordinary length from front to back. lasting a relatively long time: “Feed” has a longer sound than “feet” or “fit.” belonging to a class of sounds considered as usually longer in duration than another class, as the vowel of bought as compared to that of but, and in many languages serving as a distinctive feature of phonemes, as the ah in German Bahn in contrast with the a in Bann, or the tt in Italian fatto in contrast with the t in fato (opposed to short). having the sound of the English vowels in mate, meet, mite, mote, moot, and mute, historically descended from vowels that were long in duration. lasting a longer time than a short syllable. holding or accumulating stocks, futures, commodities, etc., with the expectation of a rise in prices: a long position in chemicals. marked by a large difference in the numbers of the given betting ratio or in the amounts wagered: long odds. of or pertaining to the larger amount bet. very plastic; fat. a comparatively long time: They haven’t been gone for long. will it take long? something that is long: The signal was two longs and a short. a size of garment for men who are taller than average. a garment, as a suit or overcoat, in this size: The shorts and the longs are hung separately. a person who accumulates or holds stocks or commodities with the expectation of a rise in prices. for or through a great extent of space or, especially, time: a reform long advocated. for or throughout a specified extent, especially of time: How long did he stay? Will she be long? throughout a specified period of time: It’s been muggy all summer long. at a point of time far distant from the time indicated: long before. as long as, provided that: As long as you can come by six, I’ll be here. seeing that; since: As long as you’re going to the grocery anyway, buy me a pint of ice cream. Also, so long as. during the time that; through the period that: As long as we were neighbors, they never invited us inside their house. before long, soon: We should have news of her whereabouts before long. the long and the short of, the point or gist of; substance of: The long and the short of it is that they will be forced to sell all their holdings. Also, the long and short of. to have an earnest or strong desire or craving; yearn: to long for spring; to long to return home. to be suitable or fitting. to be the possession; belong. a person bearing an X and Y chromosome pair in the cell nuclei and normally having a penis, scrotum, and testicles, and developing hair on the face at adolescence; a boy or man. an organism of the sex or sexual phase that normally produces a sperm cell or male gamete. a staminate plant. of, pertaining to, or being a male animal or plant. pertaining to or characteristic of a male person; masculine: a male voice. composed of males: a male choir. designating or pertaining to a plant or its reproductive structure producing or containing microspores. staminate. made to fit into a corresponding open or recessed part: a male plug. small Arctic whale the male having a long spiral ivory tusk. of or pertaining to Norway, its inhabitants, or their language. a native or inhabitant of Norway. the language of Norway, a Germanic language spoken in two different dialects known as Bokmål and Nynorsk. to be like or similar to. to liken or compare. to seem, be like. of or pertaining to Scandinavia, its inhabitants, or their languages. a native or inhabitant of Scandinavia. the group of languages composed of Danish, Icelandic, Norwegian, Old Norse, Swedish, and the language of the Faeroe Islands; North Germanic. the external covering or integument of an animal body, especially when soft and flexible. such an integument stripped from the body of an animal, especially a small animal; pelt: a beaver skin. the tanned or treated pelt or hide of an animal, especially when used in apparel and accessories; leather (usually used in combination): pigskin; calfskin. any integumentary covering, casing, outer coating, or surface layer, as an investing membrane, the rind or peel of fruit, or a film on liquid: a skin of thin ice; the aluminum skin of an airplane. the outermost layer of a pearl. the outermost layer of a diamond as found: often different in color and refraction from the inner part of the stone. the shell or ceiling of a hull. the outer, exposed part of a furled sail. an outer layer of a metal piece having characteristics differing from those of the interior. a container made of animal skin, used for holding liquids, especially wine. condom. drums. a swindler; cheat. a skinflint. a horse. a dollar bill. the outer surface of a missile or rocket. to strip or deprive of skin; flay; peel; husk. to remove or strip off (any covering, outer coating, surface layer, etc.). to scrape or rub a small piece of skin from (one’s hand, leg, etc.), as in falling or sliding against something: She skinned her knee. to urge on, drive, or whip (a draft animal, as a mule or ox). to climb or jump: He skinned the rope to the top of the wall. to cover with or as if with skin. to strip of money or belongings; fleece, as in gambling. to slide cards one at a time off the top of (the pack) in dealing. to defeat completely: skinned at the polls. to castigate; reprimand: skinned for his disobedience. to slip off or depart hurriedly (often followed by out) showing or featuring nude persons, often in a sexually explicit way: a skin magazine. presenting films, stage shows, exhibitions, etc., that feature nude persons, especially in a sexually explicit way: a Times Square skin house. by an extremely narrow margin; just barely; scarcely: We made the last train by the skin of our teeth. to irritate; bother: His laugh really gets under my skin. to affect deeply; impress; penetrate: That sort of music always gets under my skin. to be insensitive to criticism or rebuffs: The complaint desk is a job for someone who has a thick skin. to be extremely sensitive to criticism or rebuffs; be easily offended: Be careful what you say to me, I have a thin skin. without harm; unscathed; safely: She escaped from the burning building with a whole skin. of no interest or concern or involving no risk to one. to avoid harm, especially to escape death: They betrayed their country to save their skins. to reprimand; scold. to subdue completely, especially in a cruel or ruthless manner: The home team was skinned alive this afternoon. under the skin, in essence; fundamentally; despite appearances or differences: sisters under the skin. of limited size; of comparatively restricted dimensions; not big; little: a small box. slender, thin, or narrow: a small waist. not large as compared with others of the same kind: a small elephant. lower-case. not great in amount, degree, extent, duration, value, etc.: a small salary. in a small manner: They talked big but lived small. into small pieces: Slice the cake small. in low tones; softly. something that is small: Do you prefer the small or the large? a small or narrow part, as of the back. those who are small: Democracy benefits the great and the small. smalls, small goods or products. underclothes. household linen, as napkins, pillowcases, etc. feel small, to be ashamed or mortified: Her unselfishness made me feel small. a plane curve generated by a point moving around a fixed point while constantly receding from or approaching it. a helix. a single circle or ring of a spiral or helical curve or object. a spiral or helical object, formation, or form. a maneuver in which an airplane descends in a helix of small pitch and large radius, with the angle of attack within that of the normal flight range. running continuously around a fixed point or center while constantly receding from or approaching it; coiling in a single plane: a spiral curve. coiling around a fixed line or axis in a constantly changing series of planes; helical. of or of the nature of a spire or coil. bound with a spiral binding; spiral-bound: a spiral notebook. to take a spiral form or course. to advance or increase steadily; rise: Costs have been spiraling all year. to fly an airplane through a spiral course. to cause to take a spiral form or course. anything coiled, wreathed, or twisted. of or pertaining to Sweden, its inhabitants, or their language. the people of Sweden collectively. a Germanic language, the language of Sweden and parts of Finland, closely related to Danish and Norwegian. in certain animals, a tooth developed to great length, usually one of a pair, as in the elephant, walrus, and wild boar, but singly in the narwhal. a long, pointed, or protruding tooth. a projection resembling the tusk of an animal. Also called gain. a diagonally cut shoulder at the end of a timber for strengthening a tenon. to dig up or tear off with the tusks. to gore with a tusk. to dig up or thrust at the ground with the tusks. akin to tooth. to combine, as two or more strands or threads, by winding together; intertwine. to form by or as if by winding strands together: Several fibers were used to twist the rope. to entwine (one thing) with another; interlace (something) with something else; interweave; plait. to wind or coil (something) about something else; encircle; entwine; wreathe. to alter in shape, as by turning the ends in opposite directions, so that parts previously in the same straight line and plane are located in a spiral curve: The sculptor twisted the form into an arabesque. He twisted his body around to look behind him. to turn sharply or wrench out of place; sprain: He twisted his ankle. to pull, tear, or break off by turning forcibly: He twisted the arm off the puppet. to distort (the features) by tensing or contracting the facial muscles; contort: She twisted her face in a wry smile. to distort the meaning or form of; pervert: He twisted my comment about to suit his own purpose. to cause to become mentally or emotionally distorted; warp: The loss of his business twisted his whole outlook on life. to form into a coil, knot, or the like by winding, rolling, etc.: to twist the hair into a knot. to bend tortuously. to cause to move with a rotary motion, as a ball pitched in a curve. to turn (something) from one direction to another, as by rotating or revolving: I twisted my chair to face the window. to combine or associate intimately. to be or become intertwined. to wind or twine about something. to writhe or squirm. to take a spiral form or course; wind, curve, or bend. to turn or rotate, as on an axis; revolve, as about something; spin. to turn so as to face in another direction. to turn, coil, or bend into a spiral shape. to change shape under forcible turning or twisting. to move with a progressive rotary motion, as a ball pitched in a curve. to dance the twist. a deviation in direction; curve; bend; turn. the action of turning or rotating on an axis; rotary motion; spin. anything formed by or as if by twisting or twining parts together. the act or process of twining strands together, as in thread, yarn, or rope. a twisting awry or askew. distortion or perversion, as of meaning or form. a peculiar attitude or bias; eccentric turn or bent of mind; eccentricity. spiral disposition, arrangement, or form. spiral movement or course. an irregular bend; crook; kink. a sudden, unanticipated change of course, as of events. a treatment, method, idea, version, etc., especially one differing from that which preceded: The screenwriters gave the old plot a new twist. the changing of the shape of anything by or as by turning the ends in opposite directions. the stress causing this alteration; torque. the resulting state. a twisting or torsional action, force, or stress; torsion. a strong, twisted silk thread, heavier than ordinary sewing silk, for working buttonholes and for other purposes. the direction of twisting in weaving yarn; S twist or Z twist. a loaf or roll of dough twisted and baked. a strip of citrus peel that has been twisted and placed in a drink to add flavor. a kind of tobacco manufactured in the form of a rope or thick cord. a dance performed by couples and characterized by strongly rhythmic turns and twists of the arms, legs, and torso. the degree of spiral formed by the grooves in a rifled firearm or cannon. a full rotation of the body about the vertical axis. a wrench. to coerce: I didn’t want to go, but he twisted my arm. to divide. a quarrel. higher, as in place, position, pitch, or in a scale: the upper stories of a house; the upper register of a singer’s voice. superior, as in rank, dignity, or station. at a higher level, more northerly, or farther from the sea: the upper slopes of a mountain; upper New York State. denoting a later division of a period, system, or the like: the Upper Devonian. the part of a shoe or boot above the sole, comprising the quarter, vamp, counter, and lining. an upper berth. a gaiter made of cloth. an upper dental plate. an upper tooth. the higher of two bunks or berths. on one’s uppers, reduced to poverty; without sufficient means: They are on their uppers but manage to hide the fact from their friends. a stimulant drug, especially an amphetamine. pleasant or elating experience, person, or situation. any of the larger marine mammals of the order Cetacea, especially as distinguished from the smaller dolphins and porpoises, having a fishlike body, forelimbs modified into flippers, and a head that is horizontally flattened. something big, great, or fine of its kind: I had a whale of a time in Europe. the constellation Cetus. to engage in whaling or whale fishing. perhaps akin to Latin squalus kind of fish.
… Again, this one’s a lot of work, but very enjoyable both to conduct and to work through. Note that when conducting it you can use a more concise dictionary, or fewer definitions, or just omit/delete any words that you don’t like.
Like with the Spell Check Technique, at this point I usually print out the list, and keep it close at hand so I can scan through it, looking for interesting words, turns of phrase, and suggestive combinations. Sometimes sections reads nicely just as they are:
- condom. drums. a swindler; cheat. a skinflint. a horse. a dollar bill. the outer surface of a missile or rocket.
- Costs have been spiraling all year. to fly an airplane through a spiral course. to cause to take a spiral form or course. anything coiled, wreathed, or twisted. of or pertaining to Sweden
- a small salary. in a small manner: They talked big but lived small. into small pieces: Slice the cake small. in low tones; softly.
- I twisted my chair to face the window. to combine or associate intimately. to be or become intertwined. to wind or twine about something. to writhe or squirm.
You can also “write through” the text, adding or deleting parts as you desire:
- A look of arctic disdain. A dead body, especially horizontally.
- From this day forward he brought forward several good suggestions. To scold a swelling wave of water. To surge, splash, or dash forward, as in waves mixed or diluted with a large amount of soda or seltzer.
- How long did he stay? Will she be long? to urge on, drive, or whip, as in falling or sliding against something. a skin magazine. That sort of music always gets under my skin. She escaped.
… or do whatever else you want with it, really. Have a blast!
- Viktor Shklovsky wants to make you a better writer, part 1: device & defamiliarization
- Theory of Prose & better writing (ctd): The New Sincerity, Tao Lin, & “differential perceptions”
Other related posts:
- Another way to generate text #1: “The Spell Check Technique”
- Another example of the Spell Check Technique
- Another way to generate text #2: “backmasking”
- Another way to generate text #3: “dictionary expansions”
- Another example of dictionary expansions
- Another way to generate text #5: “synonym clusters”
- Another way to generate text #6: “word splitting”
- Another way to generate text #7: “Gysin & Burroughs vs. Tristan Tzara”
- Another way to generate text #8: “Writing through a foreign language dictionary”
- Writing Game #1: “25, Strange as You Can”