"The Joy Luck Club," Vocabulary from "American Translation" 40 words

This list pulls vocabulary from Amy Tan's keenly observed portraits of Chinese-American women in "The Joy Luck Club."

Make sure to check all our lists for the novel: Feathers from a Thousand Li Away, The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates, American Translation, Queen Mother of the Western Skies. Here is a link to her personal essay “Mother Tongue”: Mother Tongue.
  1. wither
    wither, as with a loss of moisture
    And just after my father died last year, she said she knew this would happen. Because a philodendron plant my father had given her had withered and died, despite the fact that she watered it faithfully.
  2. relevant
    having a bearing on or connection with the subject at issue
    Of course, all of it could have been just loosely connected coincidences. And whether that’s true or not, I know the intention was there. Because when I want something to happen—or not happen—I begin to look at all events and all things as relevant, an opportunity to take or avoid.
  3. vehemence
    the property of being wild or turbulent
    Their faces were covered with every kind of misery I could imagine: pits and pustules, cracks and bumps, and fissures that I was sure erupted with the same vehemence as snails writhing in a bed of salt. If my mother had been in the room, she would have told me these poor people were victims of future husbands and wives who had failed to eat platefuls of food.
  4. prodigal
    recklessly wasteful
    I saw what I had to do so I would not have to marry Arnold. I began to leave more rice in my bowl. And then I extended my prodigal ways beyond Chinese food.
  5. appall
    strike with disgust or revulsion
    When I fantasized about moving in with him, I also dredged up my deepest fears: that he would tell me I smelled bad, that I had terrible bathroom habits, that my taste in music and television was appalling.
  6. sham
    something that is a counterfeit; not what it seems to be
    And I think that feeling of fear never left me, that I would be caught someday, exposed as a sham of a woman.
  7. exuberance
    joyful enthusiasm
    And I may not be a raving beauty, but a lot of women in my aerobics class tell me I’m “exotic” in an unusual way, and they’re jealous that my breasts don’t sag, now that small breasts are in. Plus, one of my clients said I have incredible vitality and exuberance.
  8. detest
    dislike intensely; feel antipathy or aversion towards
    That was the night he decided to “go for it,” as he put it, which is a phrase I have personally detested ever since a bank I used to work for adopted the slogan for its employee productivity contest.
  9. ingenuity
    the power of creative imagination
    "Ingenuity" also means "the property of showing inventiveness and skill"--this definition doesn't fit because "Harold is the concept man, the chief architect, the designer, the person who makes the final sales presentation to a new client"--which makes him more of a creative thinker than a skillful inventor (although according to Lena, he stole most of his ideas from her).
    Get the Hong Kong investors who are willing to sink some bucks into American ingenuity.”
  10. discreet
    unobtrusively perceptive and sympathetic
    “We’re out of rice,” I say, discreetly nodding toward my mother, whose back is turned to me.
  11. asymmetrical
    irregular in shape or outline
    "Asymmetrical" also means "characterized by an imbalance in spatial arrangement"--both definitions fit Waverly at this point in her life. In additional to her irregularly shaped haircut, Waverly has an imbalance in the spatial arrangement of her apartment--both physically (toys, clothes, and exercise equipment are scattered) and socially (she is living with a man who is not the father of her daughter).
    Mr. Rory had styled my hair differently this time, an asymmetrical blunt-line fringe that was shorter on the left side.
  12. dispute
    have a disagreement over something
    “You shouldn’t get so upset,” I said to my mother after she disputed a charge of two extra dollars because she had specified chrysanthemum tea, instead of the regular green tea.
  13. disparaging
    expressive of low opinion
    “Nothing is wrong with my heart,” she huffed as she kept a disparaging eye on the waiter.
  14. obstinate
    tenaciously unwilling or marked by tenacious unwillingness to yield
    A Horse, born in 1918, destined to be obstinate and frank to the point of tactlessness.
  15. pristine
    completely free from dirt or contamination
    And so I watched her, seeing her reaction to the changes in my apartment—from the pristine habitat I maintained after the divorce, when all of a sudden I had too much time to keep my life in order—to this present chaos, a home full of life and love.
  16. irrevocable
    incapable of being retracted or revoked
    I knew what my opponents would do, move for move. I knew at exactly what point their faces would fall when my seemingly simple and childlike strategy would reveal itself as a devastating and irrevocable course.
  17. grope
    search blindly or uncertainly
    It was as if she had erected an invisible wall and I was secretly groping each day to see how high and how wide it was.
  18. explicit
    precisely and clearly expressed or readily observable; leaving nothing to implication
    “Well, I don’t know if it’s explicitly stated in the law, but you can’t ever tell a Chinese mother to shut up.
  19. erode
    become ground down or deteriorate
    Then she would say a word about something small, something she had noticed, and then another word, and another, each one flung out like a little piece of sand, one from this direction, another from behind, more and more, until his looks, his character, his soul would have eroded away.
  20. mundane
    found in the ordinary course of events
    And even if I recognized her strategy, her sneak attack, I was afraid that some unseen speck of truth would fly into my eye, blur what I was seeing and transform him from the divine man I thought he was into someone quite mundane, mortally wounded with tiresome habits and irritating imperfections.
  21. sonorous
    full and loud and deep
    He made everyone laugh and his own laugh was deep, sonorous, masculinely sexy.
  22. apathetic
    showing little or no emotion or animation
    "Apathetic" also means "marked by a lack of interest"--this could describe a marriage where the husband's eye wandered up and down other girls' legs and who thought waxing his sports car all day was more important than taking his wife somewhere in it. But the example sentence comes from Waverly, who is describing how her emotions for her now ex-husband never actually rose to hate, but fell to apathetic boredom.
    It went from disappointment to contempt to apathetic boredom. It wasn’t until after we separated, on nights when Shoshana was asleep and I was lonely, that I wondered if perhaps my mother had poisoned my marriage.
  23. inviolable
    immune to attack; incapable of being tampered with
    From the very moment she flung her fist away from her mouth to cry, I knew my feelings for her were inviolable.
  24. innuendo
    an indirect (and usually malicious) implication
    Because I knew my feelings for him were vulnerable to being felled by my mother’s suspicions, passing remarks, and innuendos.
  25. unequivocal
    admitting of no doubt or misunderstanding; having only one meaning or interpretation and leading to only one conclusion
    His love was unequivocal. Nothing could change it. He expected nothing from me; my mere existence was enough.
  26. inhibition
    (psychology) the conscious exclusion of unacceptable thoughts or desires
    But he was so attuned to my every movement I was sure he was reading my mind. He had no inhibitions, and whatever ones he discovered I had he’d pry away from me like little treasures.
  27. sully
    make dirty or spotty, as by exposure to air; also used metaphorically
    "Sully" also means "place under suspicion or cast doubt upon"--this is the definition that Waverly intends, but her use of the adjective "pure" in the same sentence suggests that the more physical definition of "sully" is being emphasized.
    I’d never known love so pure, and I was afraid that it would become sullied by my mother.
  28. ceaseless
    uninterrupted in time and indefinitely long continuing
    They were very close, which meant they were ceaselessly tormenting each other with boasts and secrets.
  29. scrutinize
    to look at critically or searchingly, or in minute detail
    I had seen her expression when she opened the door, her forced smile as she scrutinized him from head to toe, checking her appraisal of him against that already given to her by Auntie Suyuan.
  30. guileless
    free of deceit
    With her smooth face, she looked like a young girl, frail, guileless, and innocent.
  31. acquiesce
    to agree or express agreement
    I had wished her out of my life, and she had acquiesced, floating out of her body to escape my terrible hatred.
  32. uncanny
    surpassing the ordinary or normal
    And hiding in this place, behind my invisible barriers, I knew what lay on the other side: Her side attacks. Her secret weapons. Her uncanny ability to find my weakest spots.
  33. tactful
    having or showing a sense of what is fitting and considerate in dealing with others
    Rich is being sarcastic here, because Lindo had just advised him against going to China in the summer because it is too hot and "you will only grow more spots and then your whole face will become red!" But Rich is not tactful either, because he called Waverly's mother by her first name, observed that her best dish needed a little soy sauce, and jokingly suggested she translate Chinese menus for them so they wouldn't be eating dogs or snakes by mistake.
    And Rich grins, gestures his thumb toward my mother, and says to me, “Can you believe what comes out of her mouth? Now I know where you get your sweet, tactful nature.”
  34. despicable
    morally reprehensible
    And then without missing a beat, he proceeded to say what he really wanted, which was more despicable than all the terrible things I had imagined.
  35. stifle
    smother or suppress
    “What’s so funny?” said Ted angrily.
    “Sorry,” I said. “It’s just that . . .” and I was trying hard to stifle my giggles, but one of them escaped through my nose with a snort, which made me laugh more.
  36. garish
    tastelessly showy
    The pendant was not a piece of jewelry I would have chosen for myself. It was almost the size of my little finger, a mottled green and white color, intricately carved. To me, the whole effect looked wrong: too large, too green, too garishly ornate.
  37. posterity
    all future generations
    What if they tell me this curving line branching into three oval shapes is a pomegranate and that my mother was wishing me fertility and posterity?
  38. pretext
    something serving to conceal plans; a fictitious reason that is concocted in order to conceal the real reason
    Two years ago, she had tried to evict them on the pretext that relatives from China were coming to live there.
  39. flustered
    thrown into a state of agitated confusion; (`rattled' is an informal term)
    She was genuinely flustered, speechless.
  40. chastise
    censure severely
    I waited for her to chastise me.