Grammar Quirks: Cherise Wolas on Cauliflowers and Cacophony

Grammar Girl talks with acclaimed writer Cherise Wolas, author of The Family Tabor, about creating voices for fictional people, her interpretation of the origin of the word "cauliflower," and her quest to use every word in the English dictionary. 

Mignon Fogarty
grammar girl interview with cherise wolas author of the family tabor

Grammar Girl talks with Cherise Wolas, author of The Family Tabor and The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, about grammar, her imaginative interpretation of the word "cauliflower," and the stubborn spelling of "cacophony."

Grammar Girl: What’s your favorite word and why?

Cherise Wolas: I love words so much, it would be sacreligious to have a favorite one.

That being said, each time I find the exact word that perfectly and precisely suits what I’m writing, that word becomes my favorite word, until I am on the hunt again for the next perfect word, which then becomes my favorite word, and on it goes.

I do, however, have a special fondness for words that make one wonder how they came into being. I could look up their etymologies, but I much prefer letting loose my imagination. Cauliflower, for example, defines a cabbage variety, but I prefer thinking that cauli references something mystical. And the second part of the word comes as a delightful surprise, and if you’re unhappy, say “flower” aloud, and for a while, your troubles will float away, unless, of course, you have to eat the cauliflower, and are like me, lacking absolutely no yen for it at all.

Ranunculus is another example. It’s a chewy word and sounds like something that could be very ugly, misshapen, perhaps a kind of pestilence, or a gaping oozing wound, and yet ranunculus is the genus of more than 500 species of flowering plants. And flowering plants are pretty and can lighten a mood, and bring smiles to faces. This seems to be a thematic response. For something to be a theme, I wonder, does it require more than two examples?

GG: What’s a word you dislike (either because it’s overused or misused) and why?

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CW: It is against my writer’s nature to dislike any word. Instead, I blame the humans who overuse and misuse too many words, who do not read with intent so as to learn new words and look them up, who spit out old standby words in situations where those standbys really do not apply. I have sent many people I wholeheartedly love vocabulary-builder books, because their linguistic insolvency cannot be my burden forever.

I do loathe most un-creative slang and swear words, in every day speech or in writing, although a well-placed fuck slinging into the air or dashed down on the page can have enormous pizzazz.

GG: What word will you always misspell?

CW: It’s a fact that I’ve always been a fantastic speller. The last word that boggled me, despite all my early-age advanced reading, was cacophony. It sat there harshly, loudly, so screamingly noisy on my SAT test, and I hadn’t a clue what it was or meant. I had never seen it before. As soon as I got home, I looked it up. My answer has to do with meaning, but had I only heard cacophony, I don’t know that I would have spelled it correctly, although I had a crack primary-school education where the teachers taught us how to sound out words, and I took to that beautifully. I am always looking up words (and thereby see how they are spelled), seeking their meanings, seeking the unexpected, seeking to open my mind, to churn new thoughts and ideas into being, and perhaps to employ those unexpected words as I want to and at will.

However, my parents, whom I love and adore, boggle my mind because, despite being highly educated, they seem not to know how to spell congratulations. Lately, luckily, in connection with The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, published last year, and now with the very recent publication of The Family Tabor, they have sent me many congratulatory missives, delighting me, of course, and yet it takes the mammoth will-power of a loving offspring to not send their missives back with the offending word—congradulations—corrected.


About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show.

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