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Vocabulary in The Call of the Wild

Vocabulary Examples in The Call of the Wild:

Chapter I

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"Again and again, as he looked at each brutal performance, the lesson was driven home to Buck: a man with a club was a lawgiver, a master to be obeyed, though not necessarily conciliated...."   (Chapter I)

The metaphor of the lesson taught by the club has an irony to it that is made clearer here. The “brutal performance” gets results, but all it really teaches is to be afraid of the club. That the lawgiver is “obeyed” but not “conciliated” (which means pacified or contented) leaves room for doubt about the lesson being taught.

"“Well, Buck, my boy,” he went on in a genial voice, “we've had our little ruction, and the best thing we can do is to let it go at that. You've learned your place, and I know mine. Be a good dog and all ’ll go well and the goose hang high. Be a bad dog, and I'll whale the stuffin’ outa you. Understand?”..."   (Chapter I)

“Ruction” is an abbreviation of “introduction” here. The phrase “the goose hang high” means things will go well. The verb “whale” means beat (strike as with the force of a whale).

"“Druther break cayuses any day..."   (Chapter I)

A “cayuse” can refer generally to any type of horse.

"“He's no slouch at dog-breakin’, that's wot I say,”..."   (Chapter I)

“Breaking” here refers to “breaking in,” or rendering docile. Saying he is “no slouch” indicates that the man’s procedure is prompt and effective.

"“Yep, has fits,” the man said, hiding his mangled hand from the baggage man, who had been attracted by the sounds of struggle. “I'm takin’ ’m up for the boss to ‘Frisco...."   (Chapter I)

This character is lying to the train attendant to make it seem like he has a legitimate reason for having a hostile dog. The noun “fits” could refer generally to a number of conditions, including something like rabies (often a concern when dogs are violent). “‘Frisco” is an abbreviation of San Francisco, a bay city in Northern California where some prospectors would leave to Seattle or even Alaska more directly. “Crack” here would be popular dialect term indicating a high degree of talent.

"Manuel had one besetting sin...."   (Chapter I)

“Besetting” means accompanying, or part of (like an appendage). So, this “sin” is like something that comes attached to this person.

"the cold-tubbing races..."   (Chapter I)

“Tubbing” refers most specifically to bathing (as in bathtub), but this descriptor refers more generally to the breeds of dog that inhabit cold areas.

"sated aristocrat..."   (Chapter I)

To say that Buck had lived the life of an aristocrat (a member of the nobility or society elite) would already convey that he was enjoying a life of fine things. But adding “sated” (which means “filled to the brim,” or almost over-full) just adds to the luxuriousness of his situated. London is emphasizing Buck’s status almost to the point of hyperbole.

"groping in the Arctic darkness..."   (Chapter I)

This refers to the Klondike Gold Rush (1896–1899). The portion of the Klondike River where the Rush was concentrated is in Canada’s Yukon territory, but many prospectors passed through Alaska to get there. Also note the use of “groping,” which means here to mean “to attempt to find something by feeling about as in the dark or as a blind person.” This blind searching characterizes the men as overpowered by their environment.

"ignominiously..."   (Chapter II)

The adjective “ignominious” means deserving or causing public disgrace or shame.

"discomfiture..."   (Chapter II)

The word “discomfiture” mean a feeling of unease or embarrassment; awkwardness.

"With the aurora borealis flaming coldly overhead, or the stars leaping in the frost dance, and the land numb and frozen under its pall of snow,..."   (Chapter III)

Notice the triumphant natural imagery here: the beautiful aurora borealis "flames coldly," an oxymoron that suggests it shine brightly but remotely; the stars "dance," showing movement and the joyousness associated with nature; and the land is buried under snow—"pall" being another word for cloth laid over a coffin. Though the natural world is chilly and dangerous, it is also a place of great beauty and life.

"It was as though it had always been, the wonted way of things...."   (Chapter III)

To younger Buck, this situation would have been unthinkable. To new Buck, who has experienced the law of the wilderness and the struggle to survive, it’s much more recognizable. In the grand scheme of dogs and their wolf ancestors, this scene has gone on—and will be repeated—throughout history. The adjective “wonted,” meaning “habitual,” suggests that this is the default manner in which wild dogs live, a way of life which Buck now understands well.

"plaint..."   (Chapter III)

The noun “plaint” means a sorrowful song.

"nothing less than primitive..."   (Chapter III)

Though the word “primitive” can have a negative connotation, in this passage it is clear that it it something to strive for—a state that makes power more attainable. Notice also that Buck’s desire for mastery is not driven solely by instinct but also by deviousness. Violence—the mention of Buck’s beatings by club—is not inherently evil, as it has allowed Buck to become a more capable leader.

"But the hunger-madness made them terrifying, irresistible...."   (Chapter III)

Notice the two adjectives chosen to describe the wild pack of dogs. Buck understandably finds them frightening, as he has never encountered such greedy and single-minded dogs. “Irresistible” is a more interesting word choice, as it suggests that their hunger will not be stopped by any interference, showcasing a rabid intensity in their will to survive. Another reading suggests that perhaps their wildness, too, is attractive—or at least fascinating—to Buck, reminding him of his ancestral roots.

"lugubriously..."   (Chapter IV)

The adjective “lugubrious” means to sound sad or mournful.

"celerity..."   (Chapter IV)

This noun means “quickness.” Buck’s aptitude for leadership leads to a surprisingly fast adjustment for new dogs.

"It was idle, he knew, to get between a fool and his folly; while two or three fools more or less would not alter the scheme of things...."   (Chapter V)

Thorton shows his wisdom here by knowing when a situation is not worth further effort. The saying he cites—it was idle to get between a fool and his folly—justifies his avoidance of interfering with Hal, Charles, and Mercedes’s disastrous choice to cross the frozen-over river. A lesser-known definition of the adjective “idle” is “pointless or without effect,” and the noun “folly” means “foolishness” or “an act lacking common sense.” Thorton knows that the prospectors will not take his advice despite his experience with the area; he humorously continues that their being three fools instead of one does not change their fate. Instead, he leaves them for the wilderness to deal with according to its laws.

"perambulating..."   (Chapter V)

The verb “perambulate” means “to travel on foot.” Buck and the other dogs, then, look like walking skeletons due to malnutrition and overwork.

"And so it went, the inexorable elimination of the superfluous...."   (Chapter V)

Notice the word choice in this sentence. The adjective “inexorable” means “impossible to stop,” and “superfluous” means “unnecessary.” This mirrors the idea of survival of the fittest, which is especially relevant in the harsh, life-threatening journey through the Yukon. In order to survive, a sled team must carry only what it needs. Likewise, in evolutionary thought, individuals which are unable to endure will be eliminated, and their detrimental genes removed. This word choice shows the human characters’ inexperience and poor planning, which will eventually lead to destruction.

"repugnance..."   (Chapter V)

The noun “repugnance” means “an intense disgust.” Though Mercedes’s care for the dogs may make her seem sympathetic, she does not understand the laws of the wilderness, which say that pain and violence are sometimes necessary for survival.

"chaffering..."   (Chapter V)

The verb “chaffer” means to discuss the price or terms of a deal.

"This belt was the most salient thing about him. It advertised his callowness..."   (Chapter V)

The adjective “salient” means to stand out significantly. In this case, Hal’s belt and his overabundance of ammo show the depth of his callowness, a noun which means “immature” or “lacking sophistication.” What keeps prospectors alive in the Yukon is not over-preparation, as overloading one’s sled is dangerous, but thoughtful planning for necessities only. This lack of appropriate preparation foreshadows the tragedy that will befall Buck’s new owners and the rest of the sled team.

"for a song..."   (Chapter V)

The idiom “to buy for a song” means to buy very cheaply. Since songs are immaterial and can’t be traded, they’re not worth much in trading.

"grubstaked..."   (Chapter VI)

The verb “to grub-stake” refers to when supplies or funds were given to a miner on the promise of a share of his discoveries.

"niggerheads..."   (Chapter VII)

This now-offensive term has a variety of meanings, and in this instance it is slang for dark-colored clumps of vegetation found in northern regions of Canada.

"pertinacity..."   (Chapter VII)

The noun “pertinacity” is another word for persistence.

"obliterated..."   (Chapter VII)

The verb “to obliterate” means to destroy completely.

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