It’s crazy to think about how the same words can make up thousands of stories. It’s all about the order. In this lesson, we will identify and define major vocabulary words from the novel, ”To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, to more clearly understand this classic tale.

Book Summary

The novel, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, takes place in 1930’s Maycomb, Alabama. Jean Louise Finch, also known as Scout, is our young narrator who relives the tale of growing up in a prejudiced community. Young Scout learns the truths about racism through the trial of Tom Robinson and that things aren’t always what they appear to be when she finally meets the legendary Boo Radley.

Let’s take a look at the definitions of important thematic and contextual words that help create this classic novel.

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Southern Diction

Since the novel takes places in Alabama, the diction reflects a southern accent with words spelled phonetically and/or improperly. Because of this detail, the reader soon finds herself immersed in the setting, but with this historically accurate diction comes new vocabulary. Let’s look at some of the commonly-used words from the novel to help us better understand what we are reading.


The word malevolent stems from the prefix ‘mal’ meaning bad. The word itself means having an evil intention or being wholly bad.

In the story, Bob Ewell is a malevolent character who knows he will get Tom Robinson convicted of a crime he didn’t commit solely based on the color of his skin. His intention is premeditated and filled with hate.


Like the word above, the word benevolent, or benevolence as it’s used in the story, stems from the prefix ‘ben’ meaning well. The word itself is defined as well-meaning or having good intentions.

In the story, Tom Robinson is a benevolent character that is wrongly accused of raping and beating Mayella Ewell. He goes over to Mayella’s house to help her with her chores because he feels bad for her. His intention is good and pure.


The word contemptuous means manifesting, feeling or expressing deep hatred or disapproval. It means putting oneself above others by expressing a lack of respect.

In the story, Aunt Alexandra has a contemptuous attitude when it comes to Calpurnia, Atticus’ cook, running the household. She is also contemptuous when it comes to the way Atticus raises his children.


To antagonize means to cause someone to become hostile by severe repeated emotional or physical suffering.

During the trial, Bob Ewell feels antagonized by the testimony, so much so that he tries to mentally and physically attack Helen Robinson, Judge Taylor, and Atticus Finch after Tom is sentenced to death.


A chiffarobe, or chifferobe, is a piece of furniture that combines drawers with a long section for hanging clothing.

In the novel, a chiffarobe is referred to several times during the trial. It is stated that Mayella Ewell asks Tom Robinson to help her bust up a chiffarobe, presumably for firewood or re-purposing.


To be auspicious means presenting favorable circumstances.

For Tom Robinson, even though the evidence and testimony create an auspicious case, the color of Tom’s skin negates any hopes of innocence.


Tacit means something that is unspoken or understood without being expressed.

The fact the jury takes hours to deliberate reveals a tacit victory. Even though Tom Robinson is found guilty, the time it takes to reach a verdict reveals a change in Maycomb County’s prejudicial ways.


Apprehension is a hesitation based on fear. If you are apprehensive of something, you question it because you fear possible negative consequences.

Scout, Jem, and Dill are apprehensive of the Radley lot because of the legends they heard about Boo Radley stabbing his father in the leg and going to jail as a teen.


To assuage means to make less severe or burdensome or to make an unpleasant feeling less intense.

In the novel, Atticus tries to assuage the fears of Scout during the weeks leading up to the trial. She is worried something bad will happen to Atticus when he leaves the house at night.

Thematic Connections

While vocabulary directly from the story is important, it is just as valuable to discuss thematic connections. Words such as integrity, prejudice, and marginalized can be used to discuss this novel in detail.

Let’s take a look at their definitions and connections to the novel.


Integrity means having strong moral principles and being honest at all times, even when no one is watching.

Characters such as Atticus, Scout, and Tom Robinson can be categorized as having integrity. They all tell the truth and try to do the right thing, even when the odds are against them.


A prejudice is a preconceived notion that comes from opinion rather than facts or evidence. The word literally breaks down into ‘pre-judge’.

In the town of Maycomb, there are several community members that have a prejudice against the black community. This bias ultimately causes Tom Robinson to be found guilty when the evidence clearly proves that he is innocent.


When you look at the word marginalize, the word margin jumps out at you. A margin is the outside of a piece of paper, which can help us remember the definition. To marginalize means to treat a person, group, or concept as insignificant. Just like the paper’s margin, those who are marginalized are put on the outside.

In the novel, the black community, Dolphus Raymond, and the Radleys are all characters that are marginalized because they are different in some way.

Lesson Summary

While all the words in this lesson are vastly different by definition, they all connect thematically to form the classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. By learning words such as integrity, prejudice, marginalize, contemptuous, antagonize, benevolent, and malevolent, we can find the deeper meaning of the novel and better understand Harper Lee’s message.