Friday, 9 April 2010


Yesterday and today, encouraged by Lynn, who says it's the only way I'm likely to make proper money as a writer, I put in quite a few hours on my novel. This is my workstation when it's warm enough to sit on the deck in front of the cabin, and although I'm not into rituals, like placing a set number of carefully sharpened HB pencils in a tidy row on the desk, I do like to have one particular reference book to hand.

My mother was in the antiquarian book business for years, and we spent many a contented afternoon among the shelves of secondhand bookshops in Edinburgh and elsewhere. During one of these visits, she handed me a copy of this book, and I sat in a corner of the shop and explored it at leisure, transfixed. Of course we bought it (for £3 - the price is still marked in pencil), and rarely does a writing day go by that I don't reach for it, for enlightenment or for fun.

In the mid-1920s, the arrestingly-named Gustavus A Hartrampf (before you picture a panelled study in the linguistics faculty of the University of Tubingen, let me say that as far as I know, Hartrampf lived in Michigan), combined his conviction that "order is the supreme purpose of the physical universe" with his passion for words, and brought his intellect to bear on the idea of a new kind of thesaurus or word-finder. He decided his book would start with the general concepts his readers might wish to explore, and the verbs, adjectives, nouns and persons most likely to be in their mind when they did so; and then, by synonym, antonym and associative concept, would send them off to other parts of the book, other concepts, until they found exactly the right word for exactly the shade of meaning they wished to express.

The result was published in 1929 by the great man's own publishing house, under the title Hartramph's Vocabularies, and over the years it has been revised and reprinted many times, most recently in 2007. My copy is from 1963, by which time someone in the equally arrestingly-named Psychology Publishing Company - someone, presumably, with a less finely attuned ear for rhythm than the author's - had come up with the rather prosaic title of Hartrampf's Vocabulary Builder.

Despite its quirkiness, and its sprinkling of bizarre omissions, I can recommend Hartrampf to anyone with an interest in words. It's particularly useful to people who, like me, tend to overuse adverbs - there are none.
blog comments powered by Disqus