Frogpond 36.1 • 2013

Museum of Haiku
Literature Award

Haiku & Senryu

Essay on Word Choice


Haiku Sequence


Book Reviews

From the Editors


Word Choice in English-Language Haiku:
The Uses of Roots

by David Grayson, Alameda, California

<Word Choice in English-Language Haiku: The Uses of Roots by David Grayson>
(complete PDF version)

Here is a sample excerpt from the opening page of this essay:

morning shower—
finding just the word
I was looking for               ~ Carolyn Hall

Word choice stands at the center of the practice of writing. This is particularly true for poetry, and even more so for haiku. Simply put, the choice of a word can make or break a poem. Choosing the right word entails a myriad of considerations. Etymology can be a useful part of this process: Words originating in different periods have different properties and reflect unique states.

For English-language haiku poets, a useful starting point is distinguishing Anglo-Saxon (Old English) words from those descended from Latin (Middle English). It’s estimated that half of the commonly used words today have Old English roots. These words are older and often shorter, and contain few syllables. Typically they include the first words that native speakers learn as children: good, bad, hot, cold, eat, sleep, and so forth. As such, they possess a strong visceral resonance. When you compare these words with their Latin-derived synonyms, the differences are readily apparent:

Old English

Middle English

The Old English-descended words are simpler and more di- rect, imagistic, and colloquial.

first frost
the echo in the caw
of the crow

Mark Hollingsworth’s poem (which won Frogpond’s best of the Fall 2009 issue) contains the Old English–derived words “first,” “frost,” and “crow.” These words produce an austere and spare feeling that underscores the scene.

the sack of kittens
sinking in the icy creek,
increases the cold

In this classic by Nick Virgilio, the Old English words— “sack,” “sink,” “creek,” and “cold”—paint a sharp picture that is multi-sensory. The reader can feel the cold and the wet, and imagine the muffled cries of the kittens.

As is apparent in these two examples, Anglo-Saxon words offer several benefits. Because they are more visual, they can better evoke a scene. Because they are shorter, not only can they be accommodated in haiku, they can actually contribute to the compression of the poem. Additionally, Anglo-Saxon lends itself to alliteration; in fact, alliteration was a notable attribute of Old English literature.

In contrast, Latin-derived vocabulary from Middle English tends to be used in formal communication. It predominates in scientific and medical terminology, as well as in the legal and academic fields. Some writers and teachers recommend avoiding Latinate terms altogether because the vocabulary has been used to remove “subjectivity” from prose.

[essay continues for 4 more pages] . . .

. . .

Grayson, David. "Word Choice in English-Language Haiku: The Uses of Roots." Frogpond 36.1, Winter, 2013, 72-76.

This excerpt inclues the first two page of Grayson's essay: page 72. The complete essay includes pages 72-76. To read the complete essay, click on the PDF version:

<Word Choice in English-Language Haiku: The Uses of Roots
by David Grayson
(complete PDF version)


David Grayson’s haiku and essays have been published widely in haiku journals. He was featured in A New Resonance 6: Emerging Voices in English-Language Haiku and currently writes a feature entitled “Religio” (devoted to the intersection of haiku and religion) for The Haiku Foundation.