Word Play

Public Domain

By Debbie Burke


Unfamiliar words always catch my attention. Since words are a writer’s most important tool, I figure we can’t have too many in our toolbox.

Some words are just plain fun, either because of their sound or their meaning. Today, let’s play with several I recently ran across.


TKZ’s own Joe Hartlaub used this term in a recent comment. What the heck is lagniappe, I wondered.

A quick Wikipedia search revealed the definition of lagniappe as “a small gift given to a customer by a merchant at the time of a purchase” (such as a 13th doughnut on purchase of a dozen), or more broadly, “something given or obtained gratuitously or by way of good measure.”

LAGNIAPPE example in Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain, Public Domain

Mark Twain collected the word as a souvenir during a journey. In Life on the Mississippi he wrote: “We picked up one excellent word – a word worth travelling to New Orleans to get; a nice limber, expressive, handy word – ‘Lagniappe.’ They pronounce it lanny-yap … When a child or a servant buys something in a shop – or even the mayor or governor, for aught I know – he finishes the operation by saying, – ‘Give me something for lagniappe.‘ The shopman always responds; gives the child a bit of liquorice-root.”

According to Wikipedia, the word origin is “from the Louisiana French adapting a Quechua word brought in to New Orleans by the Spanish Creoles.”

The use of unusual words in fiction can be a risk because the writer doesn’t want to pull the reader out of the story to check the dictionary. In olden days, we had find a Merriam-Webster and page through the thick volume. However, with instant internet access, looking up an unfamiliar word is easy. Sometimes, learning a new word is a value-added bonus in the book…like a lagniappe.


Matryoshka dolls – Dennis G. Jarvis, Wikimedia Commons

Matryoshka doll

Have you seen Russian nesting dolls, also known as Matryoshka dolls? Open the first doll to find a smaller second one inside; open the second one to find an even smaller third doll inside; and so on until the last and tiniest doll is revealed. Originally made as children’s toys, they became popular mementos for tourists visiting Russia.

The root of Matryoshka means mother or maternal. According to Legomenan: “the Matryoshka doll’s shape is round and elongated like an egg, a popular symbol of fertility and reproduction since ancient times. Like an egg, out of the Matryoshka stacking doll life emerges in symbolic form. The biggest nesting doll births the smaller ones, just as the grandmother or babushka gives life to the younger generations of her family, symbolized through the full family of stacking dolls of decreasing sizes.”

The Matryoshka doll seems a good analogy for mystery plots. The reader opens the first clue that leads to hidden information that leads to more clues until the most deeply hidden information reveals the ultimate solution to the puzzle.



This is a mishearing of a phrase, often in song lyrics. Author Sylvia Wright coined the term after she misheard the words of an old Scottish ballad.

Ye Highlands and Ye Lowlands
Oh where hae you been?
They hae slay the Earl of Murray,
And Lady Mondegreen.

There is no Lady Mondegreen. The actual words of the last line are “and laid him on the green.”

Check out this site for a funny collection of Mondegreens from popular song lyrics (some are R-rated).

Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven

Actual lyric: “and as we wind on down the road, our shadows taller than our souls.”

Mondegreen:and there’s a wino down the road – I should have stolen Oreos.”


Madonna’s Material Girl

Actual lyric: “we are living in a material world, and I am a material girl.”

Mondegreen:we are living in a Cheerio world, and I am a Cheerio girl.”


Crystal Gayle’s Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue.

Mondegreen:Doughnuts make my brown eyes blue.”


Pat Benatar’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot:

Mondegreen: “Hit me with your pet shark.”


Jose Feliciano’s Feliz Navidad:

Mondegreen: “Police have a dog.”



Wikimedia Commons

Tracey, a TKZ reader in the UK, introduced me to this term. It is British slang for “when a seller (especially of property) accepts a verbal offer (a promise to purchase) on the property from one potential buyer, but then accepts a higher offer from someone else. It can also refer to the seller raising the asking price or asking for more money at the last minute, after previously verbally agreeing to a lower one.” – Wikipedia.

No one wants to be “gazumped” but it’s sure a fun word to say.

Working with words is a writer’s job but playing with words is our pleasure.


TKZers: What is your favorite unusual word? If you know the origin, please share that, also.


Four Books Four Bucks – All four books in Debbie Burke’s thriller series are on sale from July 7 to July 14. Buy one for $.99 or buy all four for the regular price of one book. 


Instrument of the Devil

Stalking Midas

Eyes in the Sky

Dead Man’s Bluff

Keeping It Simple and Doing It Right

Writers deal with words. It is a simple truth that we too often take for granted. Words are our currency, our wealth. They are the raw materials which we bend, twist, and cobble together to make a story something real and deep, that will hopefully establish an emotional connection with others. We more often than not find initially that we have constructed a rusted tin shack instead of the multi-storied, gleaming edifice that we had originally envisioned. So we try again, and again. If we are lucky, we eventually get it right, or close to a reasonable facsimile thereof.

Sometimes it takes pages to accomplish this; at other times, however, we can get it just right in a couple of sentences. I was recently — this evening, actually — on the receiving end of one of those experiences where the latter occurred and I had to share it with you. It wasn’t something that I wrote that established the connection; it was something that was sent to me.

There is of course a back story.  Annalisa, our younger daughter, turned seventeen today. Following several weeks of non-responsiveness to the question of what she wanted for her birthday, Annalisa gave us a list of camera lenses to pick and choose from. None of them were currently in manufacture, which necessitated a run through eBay. I ultimately found them through a number of merchants, including one named Yoko Ishiwatari in Kanagawa, Japan. Ms. Ishiwatari, who has a one hundred percent favorable eBay rating, sent me an email within an hour of my placing an order with her, thanking me for my patronage and assuring me that my purchase would be processed immediately. She later sent me tracking information, again thanking me for my order. The camera lens I ordered from her arrived within a week, right on time for Annalisa’s birthday, and was exactly what she wanted. That would have been enough. Ms. Ishiwatari, however, included something else, that being the note which I have reproduced at the top of this entry. It’s hanging on the wall in my office right now, where I can look it as I sit and type these words. It serves as a reminder to do things right and on time and to be polite and kind while you’re doing it, and to give those who favor you with their time and money what the folks in Louisiana call lagniappe, or “a little something extra.”  It will also be for me an admonishment that sometimes simple works just fine. Ms. Ishiwatari did all of that for me in three sentences, and I will be forever grateful. That, to me, is great writing. And, in case you are wondering, the item in the upper right hand corner of the letter is an example of origami, in this case a swan. It’s beautifully done as well. When folded out, it almost seems as if it is ready to take flight.

I’ve shared with you. If you would, tell us about a bit of writing — formal or informal, personal or otherwise — that has positively affected you recently, anything from a note on a card to some random graffiti to an addition to Post Secret.We’d love to know.