Lucy Sante Recommends...

The major indication I get that my writing is headed in the wrong direction is a surfeit of Latinate words. I’m a native French speaker and do a lot of reading in that language, so sometimes I will ride the Latin train unawares. But in English, Latin roots are often found among institutional words—words of evasion and concealment—and it is handy to have that other component, the earthy and direct Anglo-Saxon. When I catch myself headed too far down the Latin road, I turn to masters of the American language to recover the snap, crackle, and pop: Mark Twain, Zora Neale Hurston, Ring Lardner, A. J. Liebling, Charles Portis as well as that masterpiece savored by some of the keenest writers I know, Lester V. Berrey and Melvin Van Den Bark’s American Thesaurus of Slang (1942). It hasn’t been reprinted, which is a shame—it should be declared a national treasure (then again, it is 1,174 pages.) But what other reference can tell you that a “larry” is a broken novelty, “molasses” is a single coat of cheap paint, an “Airedale” is a bore, or that a faculty party is a “bun struggle”? Five minutes with this book is enough to put the spring back in your step.

Lucy Sante, author of I Heard Her Call My Name (Penguin Press, 2024) 

Photo credit: Jem Cohen