Have you ever paused as you were writing or revising to look at what’s on your page and found yourself thinking “Oh, man, that is just the right word!”? Somehow it just feels right, but how did you come up with it? and how do you find the right word, when you begin groping through a thesaurus?
Well, “just the right word” (or phrase) simply means you’ve found the right—
- emotion, and
- historical usage
The right meaning is fairly obvious. The dictionary definition of the word fits what you’re trying to say. Good!
The “sound” of the right word is a longer discussion. (Check out my free e-Course, 8 Simple Ways to Add Depth to Your Writing, for an in-depth lesson on the “sound on the page.”)
Basically, it’s how the sound of the word aids the meaning of the word. There’s a reason we “moan” when we’re hurt, and why we “screech” when we’re furiously angry or frightened. It has to do with the frequency of the sound. Lower-pitched sounds (like “moan”) have an ominous vibration, while higher-pitched sounds (like screech) sound angry and frightened. Higher-pitched sounds are more likely to gain someone’s attention, yes? And from farther away!
Subtext is the “what else” that comes along with the word—its shades of meaning. For example, look at the words, “kill,” “murder,” and “assassinate.” When do you use one versus the other?
Typically, “kill” is an unemotional word. Its one syllable starts with a hard sound (the “k”), and it’s over quickly. It sounds cold-blooded and quick.
“Murder,” on the other hand, has two syllables. The first syllable starts with the softer “m,” and both syllable repeat the “errr” sound. As opposed to the short, concise sound of the one syllable for “kill,” the word “murder” has a longer sound, and it sounds as if time were taken to PLAN it. “Murder” conveys the subtext that it was not a spur-of-the-moment act.
Extending that argument, look at “assassinate.” It conveys the idea of conspiracy: twice as many syllables as “murder,” and with the repeated hiss of the “s” sound. No wonder we kill an idea, “murder our little darlin’s,” and assassinate political figures.
In a nutshell, that’s the subtext of the word.
Emotion is part of the subtext of a word, but it runs on the tracks of our culture. A modern example, from RationalWiki“: “‘Liberal’, for instance, may be (and often is) used among Conservatives in the United States as an insult, implying that the person so-labeled disregards normal moral standards. The true meaning of such a term often becomes obscured due to the prevalence of the coded meaning.”
Your readers invest their emotions in your words, so you need to be aware of the probable and various reactions to your words and phrases. I mean, what would be your readers’ reaction to the phrase, “gay marriage?” Is it a human right? or a perversion of a religious ceremony? What might be the reaction to those words in other cultures of the world, either present or past?
There are many emotionally laden words—suicide bomber, abortion, Wall Street, military funeral, to name but a sparse few. Although these words are laden with emotion, their primary emotion comes from how you use them in the story. However, to be sure you’re using “just the right word,” you must take into consideration the emotional baggage that comes with it.
Even if you’re not writing historical fiction, the history of any word you use is significant. Let’s look at an example (though this particular example is becoming less valid as time passes).
Until these last what? ten years or so? a tattoo was a symbol of gangs and violence. During the 1960s and ’70s, in particular, it conveyed a sense of violence and fear and dread, and yet during those same years, a tattoo in the Hawaiian culture conveyed a warm sense of family. So if you were writing about a tattoo in the ’60s and ’70s, you had to be aware of the connotation of that word, that is, the nuances it conveyed along with its precise dictionary definition. If the warm, familial sense were your intended sense of the word, you had to ensure that the reader was on track with the warm, familial connotation, so they didn’t drag along the gang-violence related connotation as they read your work.
Let me leave you with this:
One of the things that makes English such a fun language to write is that it’s a “cobbled together” language. We begged, borrowed, and wholesale snatched words from German, Dutch, Old Norman, Scandinavian, ancient Greek and Latin, with roots going back to India as well. The result is an enormously disparate—and rich—vocabulary with many nuances. When you add the history of any word’s usage to its meanings, you get an enormous vocabulary. A rich playground for you, yes?
This gives you a trove of words from which to write your stories (“thesaurus” means treasury), but from time to time, it probably gives you some nasty headaches. Is the best word this one or that one? Poets, you know whereof I speak.
At this point you know this and that word don’t necessarily mean the same thing, even if they show up together in a thesaurus.
There’s an urban legend that English is the only language that has a thesaurus. It’s not, but it is one of the largest: Roget’s Revised & Updated Sixth Edition has over 330,000 words and phrases in 1,075 categories. (By the way, did you know there’s a difference between a thesaurus, which groups words into categories, and a synonym dictionary, which is a simple alphabetical list of words with their attendant synonyms? I much prefer a thesaurus—but I’ll leave that rant for a future post.)
One of my treasured books — one I keep close at hand — is my 1935 Webster’s New International Dictionary, Unabridged, Second Edition. It was the last time Webster included nearly every English word there was at the time: more than 600,000. Generously scattered throughout are glossy pages of illustrations, some of which are mesmerizing and generate stories just from their name. “The Order of the Golden Fleece, Austria.” (Third one from the left, top row.) Hmmm, I can just feel a story in that one. This very large, very old dictionary is eminently useful for more than knowing the use of a word from the mid-1930s. It’s eminently useful for finding the original meanings as well as the historical and emotional history of words.
Remember, for your non-writer readers, “just the right word” may be invisible, but its effects are inescapable.
Words carry more than their definition; they carry sound, emotion, and cultural and historical usage. Even when reading silently, readers “hear” the words—so much so that Ben Yagoda published a craft-of-writing text called “The Sound on the Page.”
And of course, there’s Milan Kundera, who averred:
I reject the very notion of synonym; each word has its own meaning and is semantically irreplaceable.
…or as Mark Twain said, in his October 15, 1888 letter to George Bainton
The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.
—Mark Twain, in a letter to George Bainton, 10/15/1888
I wish you JOY in writing!