'To Kill a Mockingbird' Vocabulary

Harper Lee’s meditation on race and childhood uses language in complex ways

On first read, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird can seem simple and unadorned—a straightforward story told in a straightforward way. But Lee’s decision to subtly blend the perspective of a 6-year-old girl and an adult woman gives the story innocence and gravitas simultaneously. The most obvious sign of the technique is the vocabulary, which is often far beyond what a kid of that age would be comfortable with, allowing a young child to tell a story in a very grown-up way.

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Abominable

Definition: Extremely unlikable, loathsome.

Example: "He had discarded the abominable blue shorts that were buttoned to his shirts and wore real short pants with a belt; he was somewhat heavier, no taller, and said he had seen his father."

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Auspicious

Definition: Seeming to be imbued with success.

Example: "The remainder of my schooldays were no more auspicious than the first. Indeed, they were an endless Project that slowly evolved into a Unit, in which miles of construction paper and wax crayon were expended by the State of Alabama in its well-meaning but fruitless efforts to teach me Group Dynamics."

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Cleaved

Definition: To cling closely to something.

Example: "One time I asked her to have a chew and she said no thanks, that—chewing gum cleaved to her palate and rendered her speechless."

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Countenance

Definition: Facial expression, overall visual presentation of the mood.

Example: "Miss Maudie answered: 'A merry heart maketh a cheerful countenance!'"

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Disapprobation

Definition: Intense disapproval.

Example: "I’m afraid our activities would be received with considerable disapprobation by the more learned authorities."

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Dispensation

Definition: The act of giving something.

Example: "Jem’s free dispensation of my pledge irked me, but precious noontime minutes were ticking away."

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Ecclesiastical

Definition: Having to do with the church.

Example: "Starkly out of place in a town of square-faced stores and steep-roofed houses, the Maycomb jail was a miniature Gothic joke one cell wide and two cells high, complete with tiny battlements and flying buttresses. Its fantasy was heightened by its red brick facade and the thick steel bars at its ecclesiastical windows."

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Edification

Definition: The act of being educated or informed.

Example: "Still, everything he read he passed along to me, but with this difference: formerly, because he thought I’d like it; now, for my edification and instruction."

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Erratic

Definition: To move in a chaotic manner.

Example: "She was furious, and when she was furious Calpurnia’s grammar became erratic."

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Ingenuous

Definition: Innocent and free from ulterior motive.

Example: "He was a year older than I, and I avoided him on principle: he enjoyed everything I disapproved of, and disliked my ingenuous diversions."

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Malevolent

Definition: Desiring to do harm, an active desire to be malicious towards someone or something.

Example: "Inside the house lived a malevolent phantom. People said he existed, but Jem and I had never seen him. People said he went out at night when the moon was down, and peeped in windows. When people’s azaleas froze in a cold snap, it was because he had breathed on them. Any stealthy small crimes committed in Maycomb were his work."

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Piety

Definition: Reverence, devotion.

Example: "All we had was Simon Finch, a fur-trapping apothecary from Cornwall whose piety was exceeded only by his stinginess."

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Prerogative

Definition: An exclusive right or privilege acquired through status or rank.

Example: "When Aunt Alexandra went to school, self-doubt could not be found in any textbook, so she knew not its meaning. She was never bored, and given the slightest chance she would exercise her royal prerogative: she would arrange, advise, caution, and warn."

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Prowess

Definition: Exceptional ability and strength in a specific area.

Example: "Jem said Mr. Avery misfigured, Dill said he must drink a gallon a day, and the ensuing contest to determine relative distances and respective prowess only made me feel left out again, as I was untalented in this area."

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Quell

Definition: To extinguish or suppress.

Example: "Miss Maudie’s tin roof quelled the flames."

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Ramshackle

Definition: Poorly made, falling apart. Held together in a fragile way.

Example: "As they had come, in ones and twos the men shuffled back to their ramshackle cars."

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Taciturn

Definition: Naturally quiet, not given to speech.

Example: "Their sister Alexandra was the Finch who remained at the Landing: she married a taciturn man who spent most of his time lying in a hammock by the river wondering if his trot-lines were full."

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Temerity

Definition: Reckless courage, excessive confidence inappropriate to the situation.

Example: "And so a quiet, respectable, humble Negro who had the unmitigated temerity to ‘feel sorry’ for a white woman has had to put his word against two white people’s."

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Tyrannical

Definition: Extreme abuse of power and authority.

Example: "Calpurnia always won, mainly because Atticus always took her side. She had been with us ever since Jem was born, and I had felt her tyrannical presence as long as I could remember."

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Unfathomable

Definition: Unable to be understood, incomprehensible.

Example: "For reasons unfathomable to the most experienced prophets in Maycomb County, autumn turned to winter that year."