10 Words Every Writer Needs to Know

Here are ten unusual words that sum up the writing experience, and our attitudes to writing, in one way or another.
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With NaNoWriMo or National Novel-Writing Month underway, writers all over the world are doubtless concerned about the prospect of facing writer's cramp, writer's block (dare we mention it? -- more on that below), and the other occupational hazards that lie in wait for those who live their lives by the pen. Here are ten unusual words that sum up the writing experience, and our attitudes to writing, in one way or another...

Cacoethes scribendi. Let's kick off with some Latin. Why not? This phrase comes from the Roman writer Juvenal and means 'an irresistible desire to write.' Well, sort of. The term appears in Juvenal's Satires and is borrowed from ancient Greek, where the first word meant 'bad habit' or 'malignant disease.' In other words, the desire to write is a kind of compulsion, or disease -- an addiction for which there is no known cure. Which brings me to...

Hypergraphia. This word means the overwhelming desire to write. Although a dash of hypergraphia sounds like just the sort of thing NaNoWrimers are probably hoping for this month, this specific term refers to a very real mental condition, when used in its specific medical sense. Hypergraphia can sometimes afflict people with epilepsy, although certain chemicals in the brain (including dopamine) have also been identified as inducing hypergraphia...

Shturmovshchina. This refers to the practice of writing frantically just before a deadline. However, its Russian origins tell a story: it dates from the days of the Soviet Union, when people would work at full pelt (not just at writing, but any job) in order to meet a deadline. The word literally refers to a storming or assault. Deadlines are obviously part and parcel of the NaNoWriMo experience, but they have been part of the writer's life for centuries. It was Émile Zola who opined, 'One forges one's style on the terrible anvil of daily deadlines.' Douglas Adams was more nonchalant: 'I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.'

Griffonage. Referring not just to writing but, more specifically, to handwriting, 'griffonage' describes an illegible piece of handwriting, or a scribble. The word first appears in a book of 1832 by Frances Trollope, mother of the novelist Anthony Trollope, the man who would start writing at 5.30 every morning and write 250 words every quarter of an hour (timing himself with a watch), before heading off to his day job at the post office. One suspects that NaNoWriMo would have held few terrors for Trollope.

Scripturient. This rather grand-sounding noun means 'one who has a passion for writing.' It is from a book by Peter Heylyn, a seventeenth-century English author whose Examen Historicum (1659) sought to debunk the errors made in recent works of history.

Graphomania. Perhaps, instead of being a scripturient, you'd prefer to be a graphomaniac? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, you can be - and others have been, too. This word for 'a mania for writing' is first recorded in 1840, though 'graphomaniac' first appears thirteen years earlier, in the title of a book: The Cheilead ... being Violent Ebullitions of Graphomaniacs.

Dysgraphia. This is a problem whereby one finds it hard to write legibly. Agatha Christie was reportedly a sufferer. And while we're on the issue of the physical difficulties of writing...

Mogigraphia. This, taken from a medical dictionary of 1857, is a rare word meaning 'writer's cramp,' the horrible stiffness of the hand which afflicts many writers who prefer to compose the old-fashioned way, pen or pencil in hand. (Two prominent pencil-users were Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck; Steinbeck was known to blunt up to 60 pencils a day!)

Graphospasm. An alternative word for mogigraphia is a 'graphospasm,' so if you'd prefer to have that, you can. And finally...

Colygraphia. Okay, so this isn't a real one. At least, it isn't yet. But it seems unfair that we have a technical term for writer's cramp but no corresponding official word for writer's block. Colygraphia is my suggestion, from the Greek prefix coly- meaning 'hinder' or 'prevent' and graphos meaning 'write.' Next time you're explaining to someone that you're suffering from writer's block, tell them you're afflicted with colygraphia instead. It's more likely to get you sympathy from friends and family, even if you have to explain what it is first.

Oliver Tearle runs the website Interesting Literature: A Library of Literary Interestingness, where this post originally appeared.

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