Shawn L. Bird

Original poetry, commentary, and fiction. All copyrights reserved.

vocabulary lessons with Diana Gabaldon June 3, 2012

I am an avid reader and an English teacher, so I have a pretty good vocabulary.  However, reading Diana Gabaldon has introduced me to many new words.  This is an ongoing effort to identify words I discovered through her books.  I am noting them as I re-read or as Diana posts Daily Lines of the latest book in progress.  Feel free to add your own additions in the comments!

OUBLIETTE. (Voyager, used metaphorically) a top loading dungeon (a.k.a. a thieves’ hole).  I find it amusing that this word wasn’t used while Claire was actually inside the thieves’ hole in Cranesmuir which is arguably a real oubliette.  Jamie uses the word to refer to being below deck on a ship.  It shows up again in Drums of Autumn, and this time young William is in an ‘oubliette.’  In that instance, it’s particularly funny, because William has, in fact, fallen into the privy.  Note the French root : Oublier (to forget).  As in, they’ll toss you in the dungeon and forget about you…  Luckily, no one forgets William in the privy hole.

 AVUNCULAR. (Drums of Autumn, the postman winks avuncularly) uncle-like. Ian uses the noun form Avunculus when writing to Jamie in Latin. Something like,  “Ian salutas Avunculus Jacobus.”  (I’ll correct that when I come across it during the re-read). s Avunculus Jacobus meaning Uncle James, of course.

ALACRITY (throughout the series).  Claire (and others) frequently do things eagerly or in cheerful readiness, i.e.  ‘with alacrity.’  I suspect this one of DG’s favourite words, actually.  Whenever Davina Porter says it in my audio books, I always grin and repeat solemnly, “with alacrity!” 🙂  When we hosted Diana here at our writers’ conference I gave her a dish towel I’d hand embroidered with “Do it with alacrity!” as a joke.  🙂

SMOOR is always used in Outlander  in the sense of  ‘to smoor the fire.’  It means ‘to smother’ in Scots.  One smothers the fire so it continues to burn slowly throughout the night.   There’s an interesting article about historical usage on the Scots Language Centre website.  Click to listen to it said, the ‘oooo’ is long and the /r/ rolls.  A lovely word spoken!  Smoor can be used to mean killing a person by depriving them of air or to mean snow covering something.  My favorite use is from that link, quoting Robert Louis Stevenson, (Merry Men 1887)  “a mune smoored wi’ mist.”  Isn’t that a romantic image for a moon being smothered by fog!

FRESHET (from Drums of Autumn).  Claire sees  freshets when she gets stranded between the Muellers and Frasers’ Ridge.  It’s a sudden overflowing of a stream due to heavy rains or rapid melting.

BATHYSPHERE.  I kid you not.  This one comes from a daily lines posting (Jun 6, 2012) of book 8 in the series  called Written in My Own Heart’s Blood (aka MOBY).  A bathysphere is a spherical chamber for deep diving.  Claire leaves a tense situation “breathing as if I’d just escaped from a bathysphere.”  This might just be my favourite Gabaldon word yet.

EXCRESCENCE- Claire uses it to describe the mob cap she’s been given by Granny Bacon in The Fiery Cross.  An excrescence is an outgrowth that’s the result of disease or abnormality, or an unattractive or superfluous addition.   I confess, this is a much milder definition than the one I had presumed.

DISQUISITION- This one came from a Facebook posting from Diana, but it’s also a humorous  article on her blog about “Butt-cooties.”  Disquisition is just a long word for ‘essay.’  As an English teacher, I will definitely be able to stick this one into my every day vocabulary!

INIMICAL- From Echo in the Bone.  It means tending to harm.  There was a strange sense of… “something waiting among the trees, not inimical, but not welcoming either.”

Click here to read a blog about CAMSTAIRY COCCYGODYNIANS.  Those are two of my favourite Gabaldon vocabulary words.  They’re from Drums of Autumn.

ABSQUATULATE- 29-01-13 Diana posted a Daily Line from MOBY (aka Written in My Own Heart’s Blood) with the following hashtag: #absquatulatemeansjustwhatyouthinkitdoes  The context is “He and Fraser had absquatulated onto the roof and down a drain-pipe, leaving William, clearly reeling with the shock of revelation, alone in the upstairs hallway.”  This word makes me laugh and shake my head.  It means to leave quickly.  To be honest, I was imagining from the context that it meant climb or clamber.  So, Diana, you were wrong.  It doesn’t mean just what I thought it did!

OLEAGINOUS- 04-04-2014 Diana posted a daily line from MOBY that said the surface of the butter was oleaginous.  i.e. greasy.  I like that this word can also mean obsequious.  I would have thought that was a satisfying enough option, but oleaginous is just so much better.  The butter was literally oleaginous, unlike pandering underlings.  Someday I’m using this word in a story. 🙂

SOUGH 14-07-2016 Daily line from book 9 Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone (aka GOBEE): “Together they stood listening, trying to still their pounding hearts and gasping breaths long enough to hear anything above the sough of the forest.”  Sough means moaning, rustling, or murmuring sound.  It rhymes with ‘cough.’

BEDIZENED 08-06-2017 Daily line from book 9 Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone (aka GOBEE):“For Angelina, unable or unwilling to bend her bedizened head enough to look down, was about to collide with the little platform on which the sitter’s chair was perched.”  Bedizened means dressed up or decorated gaudily.  Sounds like a lot of grad hair do’s we see this time of year.

FROWARD 2018-07-23 Daily line from book 9 Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone (aka GOBEE): “He’s Scottish,” I amended, with a sigh. “Which means stubborn. Also unreasonable, intolerant, contumelious, froward, pig-headed and a few other objectionable things.”  Dictionary says this is someone who is contrary and difficult to deal with.

CONTUMELIOUS 2018-07-23 Daily line from book 9 Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone (aka GOBEE): “He’s Scottish,” I amended, with a sigh. “Which means stubborn. Also unreasonable, intolerant, contumelious, froward, pig-headed and a few other objectionable things.”  Dictionary says this refers to someone’s behaviour as being insulting and objectionable.

AMBSACE 2018-07-23 Daily line from book 9 Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone (aka GOBEE): 

“Men don’t like to share a woman. Unless it’s an ambsace.”
“An ambsace?” I was beginning to wonder how I might extricate myself from this conversation with any sort of dignity. I was also beginning to feel rather alarmed.
“That’s just what Madge called it. When two men want to do things to a girl at the same time. It costs more than it would to have two girls, because they often damage her. Mostly just bruises,” she added fairly. “But still.”

By definition, ambsace is the ‘lowest roll in a game of dice: 2 ones’.  See above for the vernacular meaning in the 1700s!



18 Responses to “vocabulary lessons with Diana Gabaldon”

  1. Christiane KYPRAIOS Says:

    I have been an unabashed fan of Diana Gabaldon’s for years, I have been reading her books since 2000. I’m an avid reader too and have been since my girlhood days. As a reader from a non-native English speaking country, I always enjoy learning new words so my vocabulary’s being expanded, I’ve learnt so much. I read a lot in English and seldom (or never) encountered words like : widdershin, lackadaisical, disquisition, kerfuffle, clishmaclaver, to bamboozle, to discombobulate and so on…! I do like these words and I try to use them.

    • Shawn Bird Says:

      Christiane, I can’t imagine trying to make sense of the Scots Gaelic vernacular if I wasn’t a native English speaker! Very impressive! While most of your examples are used in English, ‘clishmaclaver’ is definitely Scots. I use it occasionally, wholly as result of my Outlander reading. It is such a colourful word! 🙂 Have you ever met Diana? She is delightful, kind, and gracious in person.

  2. […] I also have a frequently visited blog post about Diana’s vocabulary in the Outlander series.   […]

  3. Gail Says:

    I also make lists of words I find interesting and use MS Office OneNote as a repository. When I’m trying to add a spark to my writing, I scan the lists and this often ignites my brain cells. Thought I was just a word freak:-)

    • Good idea!

      I love Diana’s vocabulary. Not many people send me to a dictionary, but she does! 🙂 I like a writer who edifies me.

      • Gail Says:

        Me too – that’s the great thing about Kindle – highlight a word, a dictionary pops up to define it, and the device saves the word to a “vocabulary builder.” It greatly facilitates learning. Putting a book down and grabbing a dictionary takes away from the thrill of getting caught up in a story.

      • I generally dog ear the page and come back after the fact. You can generally approximate the meanings from context, which is enough. When I’m done the book, I go back through, turn all the dog ears and either write down the quotes I liked on the page or the vocab work, or whatever. I’d probably read the word ‘smoor’ as in ‘to smoor the fire’ a few hundred times before I decided to look into details about how it was done, to see if what I imagined was accurate (it was). That is one of the common search terms that brings people here to my blog, which is a nice fringe benefit. 🙂

        When I ‘audio read’ Written in my Own Heart’s Blood the first time, I was irritated not to hear ‘bathysphere’ which I’d noted in one of the daily lines before the book was released. Happily, I caught it on the second audio read.

  4. Having been a court reporter for over 30 years, I have been exposed to all sorts of words, but I have to say since reading, so far, the first six books in the Outlander series, I have come across dozens of words I’ve never encountered!
    Sometimes, my ancient Kindle doesn’t recognize the word!
    My favorite word thus far is “rannygazoo.” Can’t wait to work it into a sentence!

  5. Fun post. I only knew two of the words. My favorite is absquatulate.

  6. One of my favorites is uxorius. Having or showing an excessive fondness for ones wife. – That’s Jamie.

  7. […] of the most popular posts on my blog, still getting regular visits after several years is Vocabulary Lessons with Diana Gabaldon, which is a list of new words I discovered while reading Diana’s Outlander series.  When I began […]

  8. Alison Levine Says:

    Love this! I have just started Written in My Own Heart’s Blood, and have come upon a whole run of Diana Gabaldon’s vocabulary words, blathysphere and absquatulate being two of them, and I wondered if anyone might have commented on her vocabulary. So I googled Diana Gabaldon vocabulary, and found your post😃. I love how much I learn in the midst of all this entertainment! (I’m definitely not an English teacher.)

  9. Truman Davis Says:

    I always thought that I have a fairly wide vocabulary but I swear, no author has EVER made me go to the dictionary as often as she has!

    • lol Isn’t it wonderful? Deborah Harkness is also good for depth and vocabulary. Kerry Greenwood has so many fun word from Australian slang of the 1920s in her Phryne Fisher stories. 🙂

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