Venereal Soil

By Mark Alpert

I was in Florida last weekend, visiting my parents, and whenever I travel to the Sunshine State I think of the great poet Wallace Stevens (1879-1955). He was a successful insurance executive who spent most of his life in Hartford, Connecticut, but he would often vacation in Key West, Florida, and that place inspired many of his best poems.

A good example is “O Florida, Venereal Soil,” which extracts the word “venereal” from its unpleasant associations and returns it to its original meaning: of Venus. For Stevens, Florida was Venus’s domain, the place of love.

He was a poet obsessed with words and their sounds. “Concupiscent curds” in “The Emperor of Ice Cream.” “She sang beyond the genius of the sea” in “The Idea of Order at Key West.” From “Two Figures in Dense Violet Night”: “As the night conceives the sea-sounds in silence/and out of the droning sibilants makes/a serenade.”

All writers have favorite words. Back in the 1980s, when I was a reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser in Alabama, my desk in the newsroom was directly across from my colleague Ray Locker, who went on to have a very distinguished career in journalism. One afternoon, while Ray was writing one of his excellent investigative pieces, he paused his typing and gave me a gleeful look. “Dude,” he said, “I just worked the word ‘labyrinthine’ into my copy.”

I don’t know why, but I’m particularly fond of the word “abate.” When I was in college I wrote a poem that began with the line, “These days my lust abates.” I also like “slew” and “murmur” and “porcelain.”

What about your favorites? Which words do you enjoy working into your copy?

CrimeReads just put an excerpt from my new novel, THE COMING STORM, on their website. You can read it here.

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About Mark Alpert

Contributing editor at Scientific American and author of science thrillers: Final Theory (2008), The Omega Theory (2011), Extinction (2013), The Furies (2014), The Six (2015), The Orion Plan (2016), The Siege (2016), and The Silence (2017). His latest thriller, The Coming Storm (St. Martin's Press, 2019), is a cautionary tale about climate change, genetic engineering, and Donald Trump. His website:

12 thoughts on “Venereal Soil

  1. Verisimilitude. Loved it since the first time I heard it. And to this day, it comes to mind every time as “verisimilitude, a layering-on.” Also some names of medicines, like “carvedilol” (the accent is on the second syllable).

  2. One of my favorite words is the Latin word “suscipe,” in the “Gloria” from the Mass: “Suscipe deprecationem nostram.” I think I first fell in love with the word when singing Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass (Missa in Angustiis), where the soprano breaks in with this word while the choir softly chants “deprecationem nostram.” I love the sound of the word in addition to its meaning in the context.

    I haven’t figured out how to work it into my novel, though. My MC is a high school dropout who never took Latin.

  3. I got marked off on a college essay one time for using the word “despite” instead of “in spite of.” The professor thought my word was antiquated. So now I’m hyper aware of how much I use it.

  4. Managed to wedge “pulchritudinous” into a romance novel once. I was very proud of myself. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Beautifully done.

      I just startedJ reading Jane Eyre. Brings home how drastically our vocabulary has shrunk, despite the neologisms to capture technology and life-style. I wonder how much of that is market driven–do we consciously or unconsciously write down to the reading public?

  5. Used the word beabote. Have no idea what it means. It’s one of those words children come up with in their play.

    Our oldest son used to carry around a tray of toy cars calling out “Beabote! Beabote!”

    My cousin thought he might be trying to sell beabote, so he once raised his hand and said, “I’ll take some.”

    Nope. That wasn’t it, either.

  6. I love Wallace Stevens, particularly “Anecdote of the Jar” about perspective.

    The advantage to lots of much higher education is I got most of my outrageous words out of my system before I started writing genre. Favorite word I have used is “tintinnabulation.” Poe introduced me to great words, many with onomatopoeia.

    The most pretentious genre writer I’ve read is Peter Strauss with his fondness for words so archaic that they aren’t in dictionaries.

  7. My critique group says I send them to a dictionary at least once per submission. I donโ€™t know if thatโ€™s good or not. One of my favorites comes from Lovecraft. Cyclopean meaning large and bulky as in a structure. I managed to work it in to a piece once.

  8. Great words all~!

    Surprisingly, I’m enamoured with serendipity/serendipitous~


  9. I like the word “swoon.” I’ve let a few of my characters swoon, instead of faint or pass out.

  10. I have a very favorite word, but you won’t find it in the dictionary. My husband coined the word back in the ’80s when he invented the “kinestatic charge detector,” a biomedical imaging device. (If you google it, you’ll have to put quotes around it as I did here. Otherwise, google will change it to “kinesthetic charge detector.”)
    “Kinestatic” is an adjective describing something that is moving in one frame of reference but still in another. For example, going up a down escalator. You’re walking in reference to the escalator, but still in reference to the room. I love the word because it describes so much in life. Like running around in circles and getting nowhere.
    My husband, Frank, and I met an assistant to the OED editor when we were in Oxford, England years ago and they exchanged correspondence about having the word added to the dictionary. Although the word is used in a number of academic papers referring to the device, it isn’t in common usage, so it couldn’t be included in the dictionary. However, I used the word in my novel to describe running on a treadmill. Every editor who saw the manuscript told me to change it, but I explained the origin of the word and told them it had to stay. Maybe it’ll make the OED someday. ๐Ÿ˜Š
    (Sorry to carry on so long. It’s obviously something close to my heart.)

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