For the Writers: Finding the Right Words
Posted by on October 9, 2014

A friend studying the indigenous people of the Chiapas region in Mexico reports that in the Tzotzil language there, the word for word is the same as the word for struggle.

Hmm.

What writer doesn’t struggle each day to unearth the good word, the right word, the sculpted or edgy; tufted or twangling; the flawless gem to take its place in the mosaic we see in our minds?

We trawl for the perfect verb. Scour horizons for the dead-on noun. Beat our feet on the mud hoping the adjective we’ve been stalking will bubble up from the goo. Bubble, burble, bauble, bosh, scrim, scram, scrum, flapdoodle, flummoxed, umber, ululate. Acres of choices, the misfits, or almost fits so many, the perfect fits, so few.

Word: (n.) …A single distinct conceptual unit of language, comprising inflected and variant forms.”

Struggle: ( n.) …a determined effort under difficulties…a very difficult task.”

Difficult indeed.

Is our hero sizzled, soused, blotto or shickered?

Did he drink from a flask, a flagon, or a stein?

Is he an oaf, or a galoot?

In a 2013 New Yorker piece, the nonfiction stylist John McPhee (In Suspect Terrain; Coming into the Country) describes his system for finding “le mot juste,” that elusive word: “You draw a box not only around any word that does not seem quite right but also around words that fulfill their assignment but seem to present opportunity. While the word inside the box may be perfectly O.K., there is likely to be an even better word for this situation, a word right smack on the button, and why don’t you try to find such a word?” This is the crux of the struggle: The “better word.” Scamper, scurry; scuttle, or scud? McPhee warns against leaning on “the scattershot wad from a thesaurus.” Go to the dictionary instead, he advises (my own favorite, the Online Etymology Dictionary).

Indeed, words can be similar, synonymous, meaning “having the same or nearly the same meaning as another word.” The differences, however, can be epic. Each word, no matter how small or remote, comes with its own root system, reaching down to Latin or Old Norse, Middle English or Creole or Old German and more, tangles of associations breathing life into how our word will resonate on the page. “Oaf,” for example (this from the Online Etymology Dictionary), dates from the 17th Century, “originally ‘a changeling; a foolish child left by the fairies’…from a Scandinavian source such as Norwegian alfrr ‘silly person,” in old Norse “elft.” Hence, ‘a misbegotten, deformed idiot.’”

“Galoot” (also from Online Etymology) means “‘awkward or boorish man,’ 1812, nautical, ‘raw recruit, green hand,’ apparently originally a sailor’s contemptuous word for soldiers or marines… Dictionary of American Slang proposes galut, Sierra Leone Creole form of galeoto, ‘galley slave.’”

Is the right-word struggle harder for eco-writers than it is for others? Probably not. Unless you consider the eco-writer’s need to wrestle with science and the habits of the natural world. In other words, we have to overthrow the science, replacing it with the poetic. Again, from eco-poet McPhee, in Annals of the Former World:

“When the climbers in 1953 planted their flags on the highest mountain, they set them in snow over the skeletons of creatures that had lived in the warm clear ocean that India, moving north, blanked out. Possibly as much as twenty thousand feet below the seafloor, the skeletal remains had turned into rock. His one fact is a treatise in itself on  the movements of the surface of the earth.”

Not a jot of science. Just words, boxes drawn around them, dictionaries consulted, and the end, a journalistic flambé.

William Carlos Williams, in his opus “Paterson,” has the last word on words:

“It is dangerous to leave written that which is badly written. A chance word, upon paper, may destroy the world. Watch carefully and erase, while the power is still yours, I say to myself, for all that is put down, once it escapes, may rot its way into a thousand minds, the corn becomes a black smut, and all libraries, of necessity, be burned to the ground as a consequence.”

Corn becomes a “black smut?” What is he talking about …? — but wait. The second definition of smut is “a fungal disease of grains in which parts of the ear change to black powder.”

Bejabbers!

Post by Mary Ann

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  • Photo by Tyler Malone