Writing Friday: The Right Words
When I was a little Emily, growing up in the same town I’m sitting in right the hell now, I went to college for English and Creative Writing. (At some point in the not too distant future, we’ll do a blog about my feelings towards the word ‘creative’ when applied to writing. They’re quite strong. They’re not positive.)
It was a stupid decision. Stupid for many reasons. Its stupidity is best encapsulated, perhaps, by this fact: I felt like I spent quite a lot of money for not a lot of education I cared about.
There were some great classes, of course. There always are. The one I’m thinking of in particular was, of all things, an introductory poetry class–the professor, a kind and quiet man, understood words. He understood that, in addition to being pretty sacred baubles, they were also building blocks, skeins of syllables, cloth of many colors cut from rhythm and meter as well as meaning. His class, though it was supposed to cover the basics of poetry, has helped me immeasurably in everyday writing.
Why? Because the lesson he taught is important: words are not sacred. They are not unassailable. Words are merely groups of letters, and when the letters are placed together in just such a way you get rhythm and meter and rhyme and meaning. He taught me: never use fowl when chicken is right for the occasion. Or is it a poultry situation?
Forget rhyme for a second. We’re not poets here. But think, if you will, about the different flavors of those words: fowl, which sounds vaguely French but is I think Dutch in origin (not sure, and too lazy to Google), the refined French flavor to poultry or pullet, the Anglo Saxon blunt-fuckery of chicken. You chase a chicken in a yard. You wring its neck, chop off its head. You might also eat chicken, traditional meat of the poor–your child eats chicken fingers, you get fried chicken from KFC.
A pullet is a handsome little bird. Pullets roost happily in a well-insulated henhouse, are shown off by proud owners at country fairs. And a fowl is a little strange, a little out-of-context: a fowl from the sky, fowl as general birdhood. Fowl as the impersonal expanse of a bird’s pale flesh. Poultry can be eaten, or massed for slaughter in some remote location.
My professor told us a story (an old one, and one of questionable authenticity, but a very good example). When the Normans conquered England in 1066, the Saxon people were pushed into lower life-positions, peasants who farmed the land and served the new Norman gentry. Thus, a lot of our table-words for meat have a French flavor to them: pork, beef, mutton. The Normans, when eating them, would speak of them in their own language.
But the words for the animals, for the living creatures who were slaughtered and petted and raised and made much of, are pure Anglo-Saxon: pig, sheep, cow. Because the servants, speaking their own language amongst themselves, weren’t going to slaughter the master’s mutton, but their very own sheep.
Using the right word in English is vital. And it’s not as easy as going to a thesaurus and looking up synonyms–frankly, if I had my way, every thesaurus in the country would be burned, and their users would be left reading desperately, intent on developing proper language skills.
Would you say beef and cow are the same thing? No, not really. But they mean the same thing, right? More or less? Sort of?
No. They’re different words. They mean different things. At least, now they do.
I mention this because, goddammit, jubilant isn’t the same thing as happy. Nor are elated, thrilled, blithe.
They are different fucking words, and they mean different fucking things.
Here are the three steps to Using The Right Word Every Time:
It’s the only real way to increase your vocabulary, and increasing your vocabulary is crucial to Using The Right Word Every Time. Reading gives you the opportunity to find new words in a multilayered context: yes, you can check the dictionary to get an idea of what that word means, but how is it used? Happy and blithe, for instance, have a nice wholesome context very often. (F’rinstance–did you know ‘happy’ was originally closer in meaning to ‘lucky’? If you’ve ever wondered why happy looks so similar to things like happen and happenstance, something to think about). Elated and jubilant are more grand and heraldic in nature than a mere happy. Returning heroes are jubilant, their lordly fathers on their thrones elated. Thrilled has a delightful hint of sarcasm to it (think of the last time you told somebody you were thrilled. Were you? Really? Or were you pissed off?)
Maybe this is a synesthete thing, but I don’t think so. Listen to your goddamn words. What sounds like the thing you’re trying to convey? Jubilant sounds like golden clouds, triumph, and stout wide strength, thanks to that first syllable. Elated is sharper and narrower, courtesy of that nasal a. Blithe, due to that prissy th and that old-school bl, sounds like a Victorian picture postcard. This might seem a little woo-woo to you, a little more poetry than novella, but trust me, it’s important. Your readers hear your words as they read them, at least a little. And if they don’t sound good, nobody’s going to believe your story.
Learn something about your language. No, not so you can sound clever at cocktail parties.
English, maybe more than any other language on Earth up until the advent of global culture, is created largely of borrowed words. It’s Germanic–nominally. We’ve got those crunchy Anglo-Saxon derivatives, like shit and piss and spit, for most of our bodily functions. But we’ve gotten a lot of Latinate language from French and the brief Roman occupation of England, as well as Spanish from our neighbors to the South here in America (who’ve, after all, been speaking the Romantic language for over four hundred years). A few oddjob words here and there, like bazaar and alchemy and gauze and, interestingly enough, alcohol, from Arabic. Sprinkle in some Dutch, Russian, etc., etc. A lot of our Arabic words tend to deal with medicine or trade. Perhaps because, while we were busy applying leeches and balancing the four humors, the Arabs had crazy things like medicine and science.
It’s important to know where your words come from, long story short. Linguistic history is, for me at least, the true history of a people–where they’ve been, where they’ve borrowed, where they’ve fallen short. And it’s important to consider, as exemplified in the sheep/mutton example, how different word origins make words feel to us. You’ll find, if you look up enough of them, that words of different origins often (but not always!) have distinct sounds. Beautiful, for instance, is more or less Latinate. As are pulchritudinous, fascinating, attractive. Whereas lovely and pretty come from Germanic roots. Don’t those words feel different, sound different? Wouldn’t you use them in different contexts?
So no, using the right word isn’t easy. No, there isn’t a ‘trick’ to it. There’s just a lot of work.
Fascinating, fascinating work.
A final note:
The purpose to increasing your vocabulary and learning how it works isn’t, and should never be, learning bigger words. If you use pulchritudinous where pretty suffices, I’m going to assume you’re:
B) Studying for the SATs, and
C) Doing a very good job. Gold star for you.
However, big fat F on keeping me involved in the world of your story, and not taking me out of it with a knotty chickenshit unnecessary word. Because the point of all this, in a writing context, is the same as all of my other posts: you want to make your story believable, its world livable. And you can’t do that with the wrong language.
It would be like trying to knock in a nail with a screwdriver, or raising a barn made out of styrofoam. The results won’t be pretty, because you aren’t properly prepared for the job. Stories are made up of words, and before ANYTHING else, words are your tools and your building blocks.
So respect them, and learn something about them, before you start talking about plot holes and info dumps and all the other shibboleths that riddle the online writing community.
PS–I know, I know. But I haven’t gotten to say ‘shibboleth’ in years. And it is, again, EXACTLY what I mean.
Want to take a little time and play around with words? Here’s the cream of the internet crop:
Profanity List—and you thought it was easy. Over eighteen thousand naughty words–see if you can add a fresh ‘un.
The History of English–though I’m little inclined to trust anyone who uses the word ‘rollicking’, this is very informative, fun, comprehensive, etc. I’m not a serious etymologist, obviously–I’d be making more money if I was–but damn, they’re right, it’s entertaining.
Fun With Words—While the design of this website maddens me, it’s a great collection of all the fun shit you can do with English. Especially nice if you, like me, enjoy terrible puns.
9 Dirty Everyday Words–While I can’t speak directly for the accuracy here, it gave me tee-hees until I queefed glitter and dried remnants of My Little Ponies. Also useful if you ever wondered about the origin of ‘bollocks’, which some of us have, for entirely too long.