Oh No, Not That Word Again: Uncommon Words Commonly Used in Fiction

You know how every action movie has a car chase? Every TV show a tidy resolution? Well, books have repetition too, and it comes in the form of words.

“Duh,” you say. “Words are what make up books.”

True. But what I’m referring to are those words we never say in real life that show up in every novel. At least it seems that way to me.

See if you agree.

carrie, brad, and angelina 3

Photo taken at Madame Tussauds in New York.

uncommonly spoken words commonly found in fiction:

  • Permeate (spread throughout; pervade)

One day, an inhuman stench permeated my teenage son’s room.

  • Nonplussed (to be puzzled and perplexed)

Nonplussed (and retching), I scoured the bedroom for the source.

  • Unnerved (to be deprived of courage, strength, or steadiness)

Spotting nothing, I dropped to my hands and knees and lifted the stained bed skirt, though I was unnerved by what I might find.

  • Cacophony (a harsh, discordant mixture of sounds)

Before I got even a peek, a cacophony of teenage snark, grunting, and monosyllabic responses erupted behind me.

  • Bemused (puzzled, confused, or bewildered)

Bemused (and still retching), I dropped the bed skirt, creaked up to a stand, and took a tentative step toward my son.

  • Proffer (hold something out to someone for acceptance; offer)

“Is this what you’re looking for?” he asked, proffering a long-since-vanished bowl bearing a foul, black-fuzzed substance.

  • Apoplectic (overcome with anger; extremely indignant; of, relating to, or causing stroke)

Trembling and apoplectic, I stiffened and fell to the floor. “Why yes, son. Yes, it is.” (Okay, maybe I didn’t stroke out, but I did insist he toss the organic matter into the trashcan.)

But who am I to be sanctimonious? Aside from nonplussed and apoplectic, I’ve written these words myself. In all three of my books. In fact, why I haven’t tossed in nonplussed and apoplectic is anyone’s guess. But there’s always book four…

Any other uncommon words you see commonly used in fiction? Any scenes you see played out from movie to movie?

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Rubin4Carrie Rubin is the author of The Seneca Scourge and the upcoming Eating Bull. For full bio, click here.

261 Responses to “Oh No, Not That Word Again: Uncommon Words Commonly Used in Fiction”

  1. Kourtney Heintz

    I just ran across one of these in a book and it stopped me cold. I’d never seen the word before and I wondered why the author picked that word because for me it interrupted the flow of the story.

    I am guilty of using big words when it fits my character. Oliver tends to be a bit of an educated snob so he likes to throw out big words. But I try to keep it under control. 😉

    Like

    • Carrie Rubin

      If it goes to characterization, then we should by all means go all Frasier Crane on the words. 🙂

      It isn’t so much that these words are big, but rather that they’re so often used in fiction, but they’d rarely grace our lips. At least I’ve never said ‘nonplussed’ before. But there’s always a first time…

      Like

      • Kourtney Heintz

        It’s almost like we feel the need to throw down hoity toity words on the page. I think we should have a day where we try to use all these words in daily interactions. 😉

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        • Carrie Rubin

          Wouldn’t that be fun? I did use these words at dinner one night just to see what my kids would do. It was after I posted this. Needless to say I didn’t make it much beyond ‘nonplussed’ before they knew something was up.

          Like

  2. earthriderjudyberman

    Carrie … I love your list. True. I can’t recall anyone talking like that in real life.

    How about ‘quotidian?’ It means ‘ordinary.’ Hardly a fitting word to describe something out-of-the-box. 😉 I’ve seen it several times in stories and in a book, “Big Fish.”

    Another favorite of mine is ‘schadenfreude.’ (taking glee in someone else’s misfortune) I’m looking for an excuse to include that one. 😉

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    • Carrie Rubin

      I’ve probably seen quotidian, but I had no idea what it meant, so my eyes probably soared right over it. And yes, schadenfreude is a great word, one I surprisingly only learned recently.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Sue Archer

    This makes me think of an article I was reading about dialogue that talked about how boring real-life conversations are compared to what happens in fiction. 🙂 I love reading words that I don’t normally hear in real life, as long as they fit with the overall style of the book. When they pop out of nowhere because the author was clearly using a thesaurus, then it just looks odd. 🙂

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    • Carrie Rubin

      Agreed. Real-life conversations can be dull. Just once I want to hear someone say to me, “I’m so nonplussed today” or “Take this cupcake I’m proffering.” 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  4. GJ Scobie

    I like these words, but haven’t used them (I admit I had to go and check 🙂 I’ve been quite conscious recently of what words I do use. I think it’s a pity we don’t use more of those words more often. So my favourite is sagacity which appears in lots of old novels. I’ve a feeling the only book I saw this in the last hundred years was How to leave Twitter by Grace Dent 🙂 Anyway I’m determined to use it myself once I work out what it means – my kindle dictionary says its the act of being sagacious whatever that means 🙂 Great post!

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    • Carrie Rubin

      I had to go look it up too. Sagacious: “having or showing keen mental discernment and good judgment; shrewd.” Great word! Thanks for teaching me a new one. Of course, today’s generation might read ‘sagacity’ as ‘saga city.’ Sounds like a place you’d find in a video game. 🙂

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  5. Luanne

    I LOVE that meme you made. HILARIOUS!!! OK, the problem though is that I actually use some of these words. Nonplussed NEVER. Proffer NEVER. Bemused not so much. But the others are staples of my vocabulary. Can I blame my mother?

    Like

  6. philosophermouseofthehedge

    Wait! Caboodle is an odd/old word? Kit and caboodle….or was that cat and kitboodle? Word use sometimes depends on regional areas (and origin of those who settled that area – although much more mobile/moving around in lifetimes now than sittin’ still as before transportation became easier) and culture/class/education level of those around?
    Or maybe some who read a a lot or enjoy words tend to have a bigger /broader speaking vocabulary?
    But as a writer, a character’s word choice is as important as the sweater/coat they put on when it’s cold. Words tell much more than just facts and meanings. Reveals so much about the character.
    Fun post!

    Like

  7. painterwrite

    I’m the opposite..I find myself keeping the language in my books simple (sometimes this isn’t intentional, I just can’t think of a better word), then when I use a “fancy” word in daily life I wonder what neuron my brain pulled that bit of vocabulary from!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Carrie Rubin

      I’m kind of like that too, though sometimes my Frasier Crane words slip into my fiction until the editor red pens them out. But I do like tossing a juicy verbal nugget from time to time. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  8. roughwighting

    Oh dear, I use all the words you mention in your post here. In fact, I love those words. Am I just strange? In my own conversations, I’m amazed at what unusual words come out of my mouth. But when I write dialogue for my books, I keep the words simpler. (Or, more austere? unpretentious? unassuming and meeker? I ask, guilelessly…)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Carrie Rubin

      I agree–keeping dialogue simple is the way to go. Unless we have a character who normally uses big words. It’s not that these words I’ve listed are complex; it just makes me smile because I see them written commonly but never spoken. Well, almost never. 😉

      Liked by 2 people

  9. Britt Skrabanek

    LOL! I know what you mean. Once you’ve written a few books, you start to notice some patterns. Don’t think I have any of these…maybe permeate in one.

    Have you read the Outlander series? I read them many years ago and I remember being annoyed by her repetition with “unceremonious.” It’s a cool word, but not when it’s used multiple times in each book. Loved the series anyway! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Carrie Rubin

      Thank you. And yes, I admit to using “permeate” professionally too. Molecules like to permeate between human membranes. 🙂

      Like

  10. Marti

    Wowa, my head has gone into overdrive… so many words and all pretty cool whether used in fiction or not 🙂 I personally have a preference for those old fashioned words that have almost been lost in time, if it were not for the dictionary. ‘Caboodle’ rather unsurprisingly is a favourite word of mine (just to change your topic slightly) 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Jennifer J. Chow

    Love the photo! Confession: I almost used “proffer” in one of my working manuscripts but stopped myself in time. I do notice that I use a lot of repeat words and phrases in my writing, which I need to change up for different characters!

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    • Carrie Rubin

      “Proffer” is such a handy word though, isn’t it? And yet though I write it, I never say it. That’s probably just as well…

      Like

  12. Perfecting Motherhood

    I have to admit, I haven’t run into a lot of those, but I’ll have to pay attention now. I think most of the writers that I read have enough writing experience to not make that mistake. You should see the ridiculous words corporate executives want you to use in press releases and marketing materials. I call it corporatese. High-tech (beats low tech), leading edge (beats trailing behind), best (would suck to be worst), you name it. Just the facts, people, just the facts…

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    • Carrie Rubin

      I don’t really see using these words as mistakes–they’re perfectly fine words–it just makes me chuckle when I see them from book to book. As if it’s a right of passage for each author to use them at least once. 🙂 But I’m still waiting to hear someone say ‘nonplussed’ in a sentence!

      I imagine having to write corporatese does indeed come with its own internal language. Kind of like academic writing. It can be tricky to shift from one style to another!

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Sheila

    I like cacophony and permeate. We probably should slip them into conversation more often just for fun. That and kittywampus.

    Like

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