Arts & Entertainment

On Writing: The Animal List

Noah had the right idea.

Jun 4, 2023


In the series on writing tricks of the trade:

Rule #2: Memorize the animal adjectives list.

A Thesaurus is a great tool, but the only time you should use it is to complete an already-sent mental signal, e.g. you’re staring at the word decorated, know it’s wrong, and flip through the book to remember you really meant festooned. (Festooned is a great word.) If you use a Thesaurus to pick a word from scratch, it’s almost guaranteed to end up a false note. Dr. Peter Roget, an obsessive who made lists to cope with depression, was aiming for utility, not cool, when he made his synonym-finder. He can still help with basics like glacial over slow or intrepid instead of brave, but even he never hoped to get you to lively. A lifetime of reading better writers is the only sure way to develop an ear for the right word in the right spot, but a few short cuts exist.

Every aspiring writer with a sense of fun should memorize the list of animal adjectives that includes words you know like bovine, serpentine, canine, and elephantine, and ones you might not like zebrine, pteropine, corvine, vulpine, and a few hundred hilarious others. These are some of the coolest words in English, and good gateway drugs to the metaphors and bastardized usages you eventually need to layer over basic vocabulary. You can scour a Thesaurus for “lazy” and find phlegmatic, apathetic, indolent, limp, and others that feel close. If you know the animal list cold you can start with testudine, or turtle-like, and save a lot of time, in your description of the infuriating librarian with the runny nose who takes eight minutes to find your card file.

I found the list when I read Lolita as a teenager and wanted to know why pedophile protagonist Humbert Humbert was calling his quarry’s sunbathing mother a “phocine mamma.” Teachers often say it’s a no-no to make readers look something up, but I got an extra laugh pausing to learn Humbert was comparing Lolita’s lounging mother to a seal. Writing should be fun, and if you don’t enjoy learning fun words, you’re probably in the wrong line.


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