Of Mice and Men Vocabulary

Instructor: Susan Nagelsen

Susan has directed the writing program in undergraduate colleges, taught in the writing and English departments, and criminal justice departments.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck is a tragic tale of two migrant workers, Lennie Small and George Milton. In order to fully understand the story line, you must understand the vocabulary.

A Tragic Tale

John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men is a tragic story set in the Great Depression. Lennie Small and George Milton are migrant workers who move from town to town looking for work. It is a story with a rich and engaging vocabulary, a storyline that holds your attention, and imagery that allow us to see the action and feel the pain of the characters.

In order to fully engage with a piece of writing, it is important to understand the words the author is using. Think of it this way; do you remember when you first started texting and you had a whole new language to learn so you could understand and be fully understood? Taking the time to learn the words you don't know in a story or book will allow you to embrace what the author is trying to get you to see and feel and enjoy.

To fully grasp the nuances of Of Mice and Men, you need to dissect the vocabulary and see how it adds to your understanding.

Language Creates Images

Let's look at some excerpts from the book and see how the vocabulary helps the reader visualize the story.

'On one side of the river the golden foothill slopes curve up to the strong and rocky Gabilan Mountains, but on the valley side the water is lined with trees-- willows fresh and green with every spring, carrying in their lower leaf junctures the debris of the winter's flooding; and sycamores with mottled, white, recumbent limbs and branches that arch over the pool.'

Steinbeck is telling us about the landscape and the distinct views. On one side you have a mountain view, and on the other side the spring leaves join the winter 'debris', or the remains of something destroyed. 'Juncture' means a line or point where two bodies are joined; the debris is caught up in the lower branches of the willows.

He then described the sycamores. When something is 'mottled', it has patches of color, and when you see the word 'recumbent', you should immediately think of lying down. Here Steinbeck is trying to paint a picture of the trees with their patchy colored limbs lying in an arch over the pool. The use of the visual language helps us 'see' the landscape.

'For a moment the place was lifeless, and then two men emerged from the path and came into the opening by the green pool.'

'Emerged' means to come into view from a hiding place. In this segment we are able to see the two men as they make their way from the path where they were hidden out into the opening near the pool. Even small actions can be better imagined with the right words.

'He took on the elaborate manner of little girls when they are mimicking one another.'

Sometimes other senses are evoked. If we are 'elaborate', it means that we have taken great care, possibly excessive. If we 'mimic', then we are imitating the actions or voice of someone. You can almost hear the voice the character is making.

Language Reveals Character

In a narrative, a writer will pay special attention to the words used to describe a character and their actions (which often gives us a glimpse into their nature as well).

'Lennie lumbered to his feet and disappeared in the brush.'

In these lines, we get the sense that Lennie is dragging his feet. 'Lumbered' means he moved heavily or clumsily. Lennie is big, awkward, and slow in every way, so Steinbeck uses this image to emphasize that point.

'George scoffed.'

Or to put it differently, George laughed with contempt. When you 'scoff', you are letting the listener know that you are mocking what is being said.

'This room was swept and fairly neat, for Crooks was a proud, aloof man.'

By describing him as 'aloof', the author lets us know that Crooks is emotionally distant.

'Awright,' he said brusquely.'

His manner was 'brusque' or abrupt; he was short with people when he spoke, making it clear that he didn't want conversation.

'He looked down at the ground in despair.'

When someone is in 'despair', we know that they have lost all hope. This feeling of lost hope is captured in these lines, and we feel the loss along with the character.

'She was breathless with indignation.'

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