The gift of words: an interview with Geraldine McCaughrean

The gift of words: an interview with Geraldine McCaughrean

With a mother who ‘wore out dictionaries as other people wear out shoes’, Geraldine McCaughrean was always destined for a life as a wordsmith. Now one of Britain’s best loved children’s authors, she has penned over 160 publications, including Peter Pan in Scarlet, the acclaimed sequel to J. M. Barrie’s classic children’s novel.

As part of our celebrations for the Oxford English Dictionary’s 90th anniversary, we spoke to Geraldine about her experience using the OED over the years, how she shares her passion for language, and just a few of her favourite words:

Firstly, could you share some of your favourite words with us? Surely it must be tricky for an author to pick just one favourite…

Euphony – a word meaning ‘pleasing sound’ which is, in itself, a pleasing sound. Every written word is ‘heard’ by the author first and then by the reader, so a euphonious one can add a small extra pleasure to a piece of writing. I am a sucker of euphonism. It goes beyond mere onomatopoeia and is more subtle than alliteration… though I am very partial to ‘susurration’, too. And ‘mellifluous’ tastes of honey.

Have you ever used the OED in the course of your research for a book? You seem to have written on so many historical periods, different countries, and topics – has the OED ever been useful when researching a particular subject?

The older I get, the less faith I have in my spelling of words. I find myself looking them up far more than I used to. I also like to assure myself that I haven’t been using some word wrongly all my life – ‘arcane’, it was today.

I confess to using the Oxford Rhyming Dictionary too when I’m writing song lyrics or a poem won’t quite ackle.

Have you ever come across a word you’ve never known, and had an ‘ah, that’s the word I have been looking for all my life!’ moment?

I am forever coming across, in the dictionary, lovely words I’ve never met before, but rarely have the wit to write them down, so I forget them. One, I remember, was of great practical use, though. I lighted accidentally on ‘comity’, and immediately changed the name of my heroine to Comity, in the book I was then writing. Not only had it a gallopy, cheerful kind of sound, its definition matched the theme that was gradually emerging.

Presently, I am feeling indebted for the maritime definition of ‘liquefaction’ which led to an exciting chapter aboard ship as nickel ore turned to slurry.

You use words in immensely inventive ways, for example in describing the slices of chorizo at the delicatessen in The Death Defying Pepper Roux as ‘curled petals of deliciousness’. Do you enjoy putting words to work in an unexpected way?

Years ago, I heard Michael Rosen tackling similes and metaphors on an excellent TV schools programme and took it to heart. He said to throw your first idea away, because everyone will have used it already and it’s probably stale; throw your second away because someone somewhere will have used that too. Use the third because it will be all yours and striking and original.

I suffer a minor delusion about simile and metaphor. Part of me feels that if I could just liken everything in the universe to something else – like in a dot-to-dot puzzle – it would reveal the fundamental unity of everything. (So I probably use too many and ought to cut down.)

You mention on your website that you were very shy as a child, and that ‘the one place I dared to have adventures was in my imagination, writing stories’. Do you feel that words have set your personality loose?

I have a particular fondness for ‘hypergraphia’ as a word. I suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy in childhood, which has known associations with hypergraphia – the obsessive drive to write things down. (This is probably the only thing I have in common with Dostoevsky!) It surely accounts for why I was forever writing stories, as well as reading them. Add to that a painful shyness, and writing words down was me driving crampons into the rock so as to climb up them very happily towards adulthood.

Do you enjoy sharing your love of words with others?

I had a book turned down lately because its vocabulary was too difficult. ‘Gallimaufry’ was cited as the prime example of an outrageously demanding word. But what greater gift can you give to a child than words? If your child was collecting pebbles and shells from a beach, you wouldn’t tell them only to pick up the plain round ones, would you? You’d help them look for the unusual ones, the odd ones, the pretty and interesting ones. Children like unusual words. To begin with, they acquire all their words from conversation, gleaning the meaning from the context. It outrages me to be told I should NOT introduce children to some sumptuous big word because they won’t understand it: of course they won’t if they never meet it! If they don’t like the look of a word, they’ll gloss over it – get the vague gist and pass on.

Words are a better gift than money – you can spend them over and over and never be poorer – and they attract more interest.

Geraldine McCaughrean’s latest novel, Rollercoasters: Where the World Ends, is now available to buy.

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