"The Grapes of Wrath," Vocabulary from Chapters 1-8

Desperation and poverty drive the Joad family from the home they have always known in "The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck. Seeking new jobs in California, the book follows the family as they journey not just physically, but emotionally, to what they hope is a new beginning. Learn this word list that focuses on dust and heat.

Here are links to our lists for the novel: Chapters 1-8, Chapters 9-15, Chapters 16-19, Chapters 20-24, Chapters 25-30

Activities for this list:

definitions & notes only words
  1. dissipate
    cause to separate and go in different directions
    In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated.
    "Dissipate" also means "spend frivolously and unwisely"--this definition does not fit the example sentence, but it will soon be a rare action in the lives of the Joads, and it was used in an introductory description of the author Steinbeck: "His work demanded his attention so fully that he finally refused to dissipate his energy in extra-literary pursuits."
  2. flare
    burn brightly
    The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet.
  3. fray
    wear away by rubbing
    The weeds frayed and edged back toward their roots.
  4. sluggish
    moving slowly
    The rain crust broke and the dust lifted up out of the fields and drove gray plumes into the air like sluggish smoke.
  5. cunning
    showing inventiveness and skill
    During a night the wind raced faster over the land, dug cunningly among the rootlets of the corn, and the corn fought the wind with its weakened leaves until the roots were freed by the prying wind and then each stalk settled wearily sideways toward the earth and pointed the direction of the wind.
    The use of the adverb "cunningly" to describe the wind personifies it as a clever villain that fights with the corn by digging and uprooting so that it could only accuse its murderer with the position of its fallen body.
  6. pierce
    cut or make a way through
    When the night came again it was black night, for the stars could not pierce the dust to get down, and the window lights could not even spread beyond their own yards.
  7. emulsion
    a mixture of liquids that do not normally stay mixed
    Now the dust was evenly mixed with the air, an emulsion of dust and air.
  8. sift
    move as if through a sieve
    All day the dust sifted down from the sky, and the next day it sifted down. An even blanket covered the earth.
  9. bemused
    perplexed by many conflicting situations or statements
    After a while the faces of the watching men lost their bemused perplexity and became hard and angry and resistant.
  10. insinuation
    an indirect (and usually malicious) implication
    His voice had the same quality of secrecy and insinuation his eyes had.
  11. subtle
    working or spreading in a hidden and usually injurious way
    The questions of the driver had the tone of a subtle examination.
  12. significant
    rich in implication
    The driver looked significantly at the fields along the road where the corn was fallen sideways and the dust was piled on it.
  13. shimmer
    shine with a weak or fitful light
    He looked out over the fields, at the shimmering air, and gathering his gum into his cheek, out of the way, he spat out the window.
  14. testily
    in a petulant manner
    “Well, it ain’t no goddamn cinch,” he said testily.
  15. plod
    walk heavily and firmly, as when weary, or through mud
    Joad plodded along, dragging his cloud of dust behind him.
  16. pique
    cause to feel resentment or indignation
    “Goin’ someplace,” Joad explained, a little piqued.
  17. strive
    exert much effort or energy
    The plants strove against the sun.
  18. sparse
    not dense
    The willows of a stream lined across the west, and to the northwest a fallow section was going back to sparse brush.
  19. wane
    a gradual decline (in size or strength or power or number)
    Now that the sun was on the wane some of its impact was gone, and while the air was hot, the hammering rays were weaker.
  20. snub
    unusually short
    Snub-nosed monsters, raising the dust and sticking their snouts into it, straight down the country, across the country, through fences, through dooryards, in and out of gullies in straight lines.
    "Snub" is used as an adjective here, but as a verb, it means "refuse to acknowledge" or "reject outright and bluntly" and as a noun, it means "an instance of driving away and warding off"--all these definitions also fit how the tractors and drivers interact with the tenant farmers who are being plowed out of their land and house.
  21. beseech
    ask for or request earnestly
    He did not know or own or trust or beseech the land.
  22. wither
    shrink, as with a loss of moisture
    If the young thrusting plant withered in drought or drowned in a flood of rain, it was no more to the driver than to the tractor.
  23. cultivated
    prepared for raising crops by plowing or fertilizing
    Where the dooryard had been pounded hard by the bare feet of children and by stamping horses’ hooves and by the broad wagon wheels, it was cultivated now, and the dark green, dusty cotton grew.
  24. truculent
    defiantly aggressive
    Muley’s face was smooth and unwrinkled, but it wore the truculent look of a bad child, the mouth held tight and small, the little eyes half scowling, half petulant.
    "Petulant" means "easily irritated or annoyed" and "scowl" means "frown with displeasure"--these two words describe the truculent look of Muley, whose name is also indicative of his mood ("mulish" means "unreasonably rigid in the face of argument or entreaty or attack").
  25. linger
    remain present although waning or gradually dying
    A large red drop of sun lingered on the horizon and then dripped over and was gone, and the sky was brilliant over the spot where it had gone, and a torn cloud, like a bloody rag, hung over the spot of its going.
  26. insubstantial
    lacking material form
    The sky grayed among the stars, and the pale, late quarter-moon was insubstantial and thin.
  27. hackles
    a feeling of anger and animosity
    Now all dogs met and hackles rose, and they all growled and stood stiffly, each waiting for the others to start a fight.
  28. animosity
    a feeling of ill will arousing active hostility
    Two rangy shepherd dogs trotted up pleasantly, until they caught the scent of strangers, and then they backed cautiously away, watchful, their tails moving slowly and tentatively in the air, but their eyes and noses quick for animosity or danger.
  29. cantankerous
    having a difficult and contrary disposition
    A cantankerous, complaining, mischievous, laughing face. He fought and argued, told dirty stories. He was as lecherous as always.
    "Lecherous" means "given to excessive indulgence in sexual activity"--both adjectives describe Grampa, who seems to embody both the life-affirming and conflict-creating qualities of heat and dust.
  30. malice
    feeling a need to see others suffer
    His little eyes glittered with malice. “Lookut him,” he said. “A jailbird. Ain’t been no Joads in jail for a hell of a time.”

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