The Things They Carried Vocabulary

Instructor: Susan Nagelsen

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

In Tim O'Brien's novel, The Things They Carried, we are introduced to the men of Alpha Company; we learn of the soldiers' exploits in Vietnam and much is revealed to us about the inner lives of these men. In order to get a full picture of the text, we need to take a close look at the vocabulary.

Who Were They

Alpha Company is composed of men whose stories we learn about in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. In the first story, which shares its title with the book itself, soldiers deployed in Vietnam must carry everything with them; this includes their supplies, but also more abstract things, such as personal reminders of their loved ones and the world they left behind. As readers, we bear witness to the tragic loss of a team member, to their struggles to cope with the loss, stress, and confusion engendered by the war. Through these stories, it is possible for us to observe what life was like for these soldiers when they returned home.

The Things They Carried
The Things They Carried

Vocabulary Aids Understanding

In order to fully understand what we read, it is important to make sure that we take the time to learn the meanings of words that are unfamiliar. Taking the steps necessary to add new vocabulary words to your repertoire will heighten your ability to read, to process information, and to think critically. Let's take a look at some of the more interesting words in The Things They Carried.

Part 1

  • Laxity - The tendency to be easygoing or less strict than is effective.

'He would not tolerate laxity. He would show strength, distancing himself.'

  • Volition - The capacity for making a conscious decision.

'Just humping, one step and then the next and then another, but no volition, no will, because it was automatic . . .'

  • Ambiguities - Things that are vague or uncertain.

'And for all the ambiguities of Vietnam, all the mysteries and unknowns, there was at least the single abiding certainty. . .'

  • Amortizing - Getting rid of a debt by making periodic and regular payments.

'It justified the past while amortizing the future.'

  • Eviscerated - Having removed the intestines.

''The hogs were decapitated . . . eviscerated and strong by the hind hocks on a high conveyor belt.'

  • Acquiescence - Acceptance without either enthusiasm or protest.

'Telling them how much I detested their blind, thoughtless, automatic acquiescence to it all, . . .'

  • Reticence - The state of being inclined to remain quiet or withhold something from the conversation.

'His reticence was typical of that part of Minnesota, where privacy still held value.'

  • Ruthless - Without mercy.

'Each morning we'd form up in a long column, the old poppa-san out front, and for the whole day we'd troop along after him, tracing his footsteps, playing an exact and ruthless game of follow the leader.'

Part 2

  • Skittish - Excitable or unpredictable, on edge.

'At night he had trouble sleeping--a skittish feeling--always on guard, hearing strange noises in the dark, imagining a grenade rolling into his foxhole or the tickle of a knife against his ear.'

  • Rectitude -Virtue, decency.

'If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.'

  • Surreal - Bizarre, unreal.

'And then afterward, when you go to tell about it, there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed.'

  • Anarchy - A state of disorder originating in an absence of recognized authority.

'Order blends into chaos, love into hate, ugliness into beauty, law into anarchy, civility into savagery.'

  • Mundane - Lacking in interest or dull.

'Vietnam was full of strange stories, some improbable, some well beyond that, but the stories that will last forever are those that swirl back and forth across the border between trivia and bedlam, the mad and the mundane.'

Part 3

  • Rout - Disorganized retreat of soldiers who have already lost the battle.

'...from his earliest boyhood the man I killed would have listened to stories about the heroic Trung sisters and Tran Hung Dao's famous rout of the Mongols and Le Loi's final victory against the Chinese at Tot Dong.'

  • Cadre - Small group with specialized training.

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