A Lesson Before Dying Vocabulary

Instructor: Joseph Altnether

Joe has taught college English courses for several years, has a Bachelor's degree in Russian Studies and a Master's degree in English literature.

Vocabulary provides useful information to readers. In Ernest J. Gaines' novel 'A Lesson Before Dying', his usage of specific vocabulary alerts the reader to particular themes within the novel. Read on to learn more.

Vocabulary for A Lesson Before Dying

Language is peculiar. We shape and form the words we want to use not only based on context but also our audience. Certain words or phrases we use with classmates or friends are not the same that we would use with parents or teachers. Our collection of words, or vocabulary, also helps shape our understanding of the world. Gaines uses vocabulary to help shape A Lesson Before Dying.

Legal Vocabulary

The opening of A Lesson Before Dying introduces the reader to vocabulary that is specific to the legal field. The use of legal vocabulary shows complexities with relationships.


The author, Ernest J. Gaines, introduces the reader immediately to the public defender and prosecutor. The public defender argues on behalf of the accused, in this case Jefferson, a black man accused of murder. The prosecutor takes the position of proving Jefferson is guilty of the crime with which he has been charged.

Because the novel is set during the late 1940s, the death penalty was carried out differently. There was not an appeal process, and the verdict of death was carried out in a manner much quicker than today. In Jefferson's case, he waited about six months. But criminal law is not the only type of law mentioned.


Grant Wiggins, the main character and narrator of the novel, and his girlfriend Vivian Baptiste use vocabulary that one might associate with civil law. Since Vivian is still married, she needs to divorce her husband in order to move forward with her relationship with Grant.

Vivian indicates that she is separated rather than divorced, a matter for civil law. Separation merely indicates that the two parties are no longer living together, but they are still legally married. As a result, Vivian must be cautious with her relationship with Grant, because her intimacy with Grant might be seen as immoral. This would work against her if she seeks to maintain custody of her children after the divorce.

Regional Vocabulary

Another aspect of the novel that influences the vocabulary is setting. Let's explore some examples of how language is used to to convey the region and culture.


Events take place in the state of Louisiana, and the characters' vocabulary is marked by Southern influence and the French heritage of Louisiana. The house of Henri Pichot, for instance, is referred to as antebellum. Breaking this word down, it is defined as 'before war.' Thus, an antebellum home would be one that was built prior to the Civil War.

In his narrations, Grant refers to people as Madame and Tante (rather than Aunt), references to the French heritage of Louisiana. Grant and Vivian demonstrate their knowledge of the French language with phrases such as j'taime, and je t'aimerais toujours. These translate simply as 'I love you,' and 'I will always love you.'

Southern Speech

The Southern influence can be found in the polite language, particularly that of the sheriff's wife, Mrs. Edna Guidry. Phrases like 'I just do declare' show the influence of her Southern upbringing. Other words used by the author demonstrate the strong influence of this environment.

Plant life, such as jimsonweed and crabgrass, housing material such as corrugated roofs (the material of the roof has been bent to form ridges), furniture like the chifforobe (piece of furniture that allows you to hang your clothes on one side, while having a set of drawers on the other side) and mosquito bar (netting to prevent mosquitoes) are more common to the South. Even bayous (marshy areas of land near rivers, streams or lakes) provide a specific appeal to Louisiana.

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