The Grapes of Wrath Vocabulary

Instructor: Becky Dotzel

Becky has taught high school and college level courses; she has a bachelor's degree in English and a master's in secondary education.

The Grapes of Wrath was written by John Steinbeck in response to the The Great Depression and the plight of migrant workers in 1930s America.This lesson explores the main vocabulary of The Grapes of Wrath.

Plot Summary

John Steinbeck was an author and native Californian who visited several migrant farms within his state during the 1930s. As a result of those visits, he penned the famous Grapes of Wrath. After viewing the inhuman and unfair conditions of California's migrant farm workers, Steinbeck wanted to 'put a tag of shame' on those he felt were responsible. The book follows the Joad family who, due to devastating drought conditions in the Midwest that have left them poor and desperate, depart from their farm and journey across the country to California, where they have been told they will find plentiful work. Upon arrival, however, they are faced with extremely unfair and limited working conditions and find themselves struggling just to survive.

John Steinbeck

The Grapes of Wrath is realistic fiction, a type of narrative fiction that is comprised of believable, true to life events. John Steinbeck is an author known for his accessible writing style, but the book does contain several words that may be unfamiliar, especially those belonging to 1930s American vernacular. Additionally, John Steinbeck often uses figurative language ,or words that differ from standard dictionary definitions. Understanding some key vocabulary terms helps us to understand the main characters, plot, theme, and historical setting of the novel.


Key Historical Terms

Dust Bowl: Due to the lack of soil conservation practices and extreme drought, the land in the American Midwest, once used for farming, became so dry and infertile that dirt swept the air and created large clouds of dust. In the 1930s, this area became known as 'The Dust Bowl.'

The Dust Bowl

Okies: A derogatory name given to people from Oklahoma and other Dust Bowl States who traveled West in search of work.

Jalopies: Old and dilapidated automobiles. Those from the Dust Bowl, who could afford to do so, traveled West in these broken-down vehicles.

Hooverville: A name given to small towns created by desperate and exhausted workers and those searching for work. Hoovervilles were named after President Hoover, because many people blamed the economic crisis of the 1930s on him.

Skitters: Stomach and intestinal upset caused by poor diet and lack of nutrition.

Mother Hubbard: The name for a long, loose-fitting, and shapeless dress. Named after the nursery rhyme, Old Mother Hubbard.

Chapters 1-10

rivulet: a small stream.

-The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks.

(In this case, due to drought, only marks exist where streams rivulets once flowed.)


bayonet: a blade attached to a rifle.

-The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet.

(Here, Steinbeck is using a bayonet as a symbol of the harsh, war-like atmosphere in the American Dust Bowl, and the struggle the growing crops face in the dry and hot weather.)

chambray: a lightweight fabric with white threads (similar to denim).

-His blue chambray shirt was stiff and smooth with filler.

(Though these fabrics are common now, chambray and denim were worn by farmers and other workers in the 1930s for their durability.)

hob-nailed:shoes or boots with nails (to make shoes last longer).

-Tom Joad wears shoes that are 'hob-nailed and with half-circles like horseshoes.'

(Because the Joads are so poor, they take precautions, such as hob-nailing shoes, to make their possessions last longer.)

hob-nailed boots

Chapters 11-20

truculent: aggressive and defiant; quick to start a fight.

-Muley's face was smooth and unwrinkled but it wore the truculent look of a bad child.

(Muley is described this way because he insisted on staying at the farm, even though the rest of his family went West.)

cantankerous:disagreeable and uncooperative.

-cantankerous, complaining, mischievous, laughing face. He fought and argued.

(Grampa, is very angry because he doesn't want to leave his farm.)

scrounge:to borrow something with no plan of returning; steal or take advantage of someone's generosity.

-Maybe I can just find out somethin', just scrounge around and maybe find out.

(In this case, scrounge means to look around.)

-'scrounge aroun' good in their ears.'

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